by Joseph Pieper

Franceso Traini's The Triumph of Saint Thomas

Saint Thomas Aquinas is "larger than life" and his intellect and writings are as radiant as his noble heart! His influence is incalculable! He represents, too, the radiance of the Catholic Tradition and the beauty of holiness and the holiness of beauty. Among countless gifts to us, he gives us a renewed appreciation for the gift of Creation itself! And this Creation culminates in Christ, the New Adam of the New Creation, communicated to us in the Eucharistic Mystery of Faith. It is impossible to "sum" up this great saint; but this essay by Joseph Pieper (from The Silence of St. Thomas)  may be one of the best introductions to both his life, work, and personality -- that gives a real "feel" for the "dumb ox whose bellow would be heard throughout the world!" (St Albert the Great about St Thomas, his student, known by fellow students as "the dumb ox!")


A chance perusal of any of. Augustine's writings, even a page from his most abstract work, On the Trinity, will convey the unmistakable impression: this was thought and written by a man of flesh and blood. But let someone take a similar glimpse into the tight structure of the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, and he will be tempted to ask: Were these sentences really set down by a living man or did not rather the objective content formulate itself undisturbed -- neither blurred nor warmed -- by the breath of a living thinker? The vital products of Augustine's thinking never allow us to forget their source in his personal life, from which they spring forth like the blossom from its root and stem. But the language of St. Thomas suggests its origin in a living mind as little as crystal suggests the essential liquid from which it is formed.

Yet only on a superficial interpretation would one infer from the untroubled and unhurried serenity of the work that the author himself lived in freedom from outer or inner disturbances. On the other hand, it is certainly clear that the Summa Theologica can only be the work of a heart fundamentally at peace.

St. Thomas did not discover and map out his majestic outline of Christian teaching in the "silence of the cloister cell." It was not in some idyllic sphere of retirement cut off from the happenings in the world that he lived out his life. Such presentations, as untrue to history as they are impermissibly simplified, not only color, or rather discolor in many particulars the conventional portraits of Thomas; they frequently have an effect on biographical studies which make higher claims to accuracy.

The very fact that a work of such unperturbed objectivity and such deep, radiating peace could grow from a life which, far from being untroubled, consumed itself in strife, gives us an insight into the special quality of the man. His work, incidentally, shows immediate reflection and evidence of an outspokenly combative cast of mind, which, however, even in the heat of battle, was never divorced from the norms of truth and love and consequently never lost its fundamental peace.

The writing On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, originating in his forty-fifth year, ends with the following words: "If anyone wishes to write against this, I will welcome it. For true and false will in no better way be revealed and uncovered than in resistance to a contradiction, according to the saying: 'Iron is sharpened by iron.' (Prov. 27: I 7). And between us and them may God judge, Who is blessed in eternity. Amen."

Count Landulf of Aquino, Lord of Loretto and Belcastro, was one of the most loyal vassals of the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick II. During the years of the sharpest struggle between Emperor and Pope his youngest son Thomas was preparing himself for an office both remote and superior to the conflict -- the priestly office of preaching the truth. He was studying at the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino which at that time also served as an imperial castle, situated on the border between Hohenstaufen and papal territory. Under these circumstances, Thomas could hardly expect a secure life sheltered from external disturbances and dangers.

In the first months of the year 1239, when Frederick II was excommunicated, Monte Cassino came directly into the zone of battle. The garrison of the castle, half of which had to be supported by the abbey, was more than doubled. The fortifications were expanded by order of the Emperor himself, who had first entered his Sicilian kingdom twenty years previously at this very spot. In this same year, the monks had to leave their monastery. Among their company was the fifteen-year-old Thomas Aquinas.

This exodus led the boy to Naples -- to the beginning of his particular destiny; it took him permanently out of seclusion and thrust him into the heated center of all the intellectual battles of that time. The University of Naples, founded in the year of Thomas's birth, was the first "pure state university," -- not a "school for seminarians but a school for imperial officials."

Frederick II had designed it to work against the Church. Here, according to custom, Thomas studied the "liberal arts." What is most important is that, under the tutelage of the Irishman, Peter of Hibernia, he became acquainted with the writings of Aristotle, which were at that time extremely suspect in the Church. "Aristotelian!" was an abusive epithet in the mouths of the orthodox, comparable to nihilist, freethinker, man of the "Enlightenment."

It was in Naples, too, that the flame of that urban "youth movement," which was filling the ranks of the first generation of the mendicant orders, was first kindled in the heart of the young nobleman.

These two words, "Aristotle" and "mendicants," indicate the two most important disputes which in the first half of the thirteenth century rocked Christendom with a passionate violence we can scarcely understand. Both Aristotle and the mendicant orders stood in the midst of a storm of approvals and rejections.

At the time when Thomas came to Naples, hardly a decade and a half after the death of St. Francis of Assisi (1226), the two mendicant orders had not yet achieved any general recognition. On the contrary, all papal recognitions and privileges could not prevent the representatives of the established society -- the temporal lords, the rising, urban middle class and the secular clergy from calling these remarkable new "poor men" "demented" (which was partly understandable), and even "heretical" or "sons of the Anti-Christ." This, of course, did not stem the upsurge of the young spiritual movement, nourished as it was by so many sources, among them the fundamental historical impulse of the times.

Above all it attracted, as if they were its rightful portion, young men of noble birth. We also know that both the Franciscan and the Dominican convents in Paris received many recruits from the student body. The records are similar for the University of Bologna, and quite probably the same was true of the University of Frederick II at Naples.

For all these young men, events such as the following must have been like the illumination of sudden lightning and a charm to capture their hearts: In the year 1231, a professor at the University of Paris, Jean of St. Giles, was delivering a lecture on evangelical poverty in the Dominican Priory of St. Jacques. As he spoke, he was so carried away by his subject that he broke off his lecture and begged the Prior for the habit. Then, himself become a Dominican, he went on to finish his lecture. One could consider this report legendary, were it not a fact that in this very way the Dominicans acquired a chair, their second, at the University of Paris -- a chair which Thomas Aquinas was to occupy twenty years later.

The power inherent in all these new things drew the young liberal arts student irresistibly into the discussions and forced him to a decision. At the age of twenty, Thomas entered the Order of St. Dominic which combines the ideal of poverty with that of study.

In more than one way this decision must have been a provocation to Frederick  II, since Thomas was the son of one of his vassals. And it is probable that to Count Landulf of Aquino -- whose brother was abbot of powerful Monte Cassino, and who doubtless preferred to think of his son rather as a successor to this almost princely office than as a mendicant friar -- the whole mendicant order movement must have appeared as something positively inferior and disreputable, a judgment in which his whole family was likely to concur.

And though it would be absurd to seek in Thomas's decision motives of politics, even ecclesiastical politics (the young man had already glimpsed the superiority of truth over worldly power), in the distorting mirror of minds dominated by power politics his entrance into a mendicant order might easily have been construed as a decision against the Emperor and for the Pope, as whose particular friends and tools the new communities of Franciscans and Dominicans were regarded. Accordingly, the haste with which the Friars Preachers sped Thomas out of the imperial district and away from his family is thoroughly understandable. They sent him forthwith on the way toward Paris.

But Thomas did not arrive so easily at the place of his future fame. On the way he was captured by his brothers and held prisoner. There are many indications that this was not done without the consent or even the assistance of the Emperor himself. In any case, Pope Innocent IV protested unsuccessfully to the Emperor against this act of violence. Thomas was imprisoned in his father's castle of San Giovanni for over a year until, with the aid of his sister, he finally succeeded in making his escape.

He resumed immediately the interrupted journey to Paris. It is noteworthy that Thomas's traveling companion, Johannes Teutonicus, then Master General of the order, and later his teacher, Albert the Great, were both Germans. Johannes Teutonicus was a Westphalian from the ecclesiastical district around Munster. In this same year 1245, when Thomas moved on to France, a General  Council was being assembled at Lyons, which dethroned the Emperor and disinherited his line.

While this threatening storm brewed in the West, Thomas arrived in Paris, a city so eminently the metropolis of theological studies that Scholastic research could claim that in the entire medieval era no Summa Theologica was written which does not relate to the university near Notre Dame Cathedral.

Thomas found the Friars Preachers of St. Jacques Priory in a precarious situation. They, as well as the Franciscans, could hardly show themselves in the streets without being insulted or attacked. The King of France, Saint Louis (later to become a friend of St. Thomas, who was some ten years his junior) had found it necessary to detail a royal guard to the convent to protect it against assault. In the whole order, special prayers were prescribed begging God to put an end to this evil, which was everywhere rampant, but particularly acute in Paris.

Thomas, then only a little over twenty, and because of his strength, his slow movements and his characteristic silence, dubbed by his fellow students "the dumb ox," probably did not suffer unduly from these circumstances; though, of course, they do not convey the idyllic picture of a peaceful cloister cell.

An event of quite another sort must have claimed his entire attention: In the year of Thomas's arrival, Albertus Magnus began to teach in Paris. The friendship that developed out of this encounter of master and pupil and the fruitfulness of their common work were to change the intellectual face of the West. A few years after their first meeting, in 1248, the year in which the foundation stone of Cologne Cathedral was laid, both Albert and Thomas were transferred to Cologne. Albert was instructed to establish there a college for the Friars Preachers. For Thomas, these years held the gift of fruitful silence and intellectual ripening. The halfway mark of his stay in Cologne coincided with the halfway mark of the century; for Thomas, it was already the halfway mark of his life.

The years in Cologne were ended by a letter from the Master General, Johannes Teutonicus, in which Thomas was summoned to prepare himself for a teaching assignment which led him back to Paris. Meanwhile, at the University of Paris, the old battle between the secular clergy and the mendicants had burst into new flame. It was now a battle between points of teaching as well as for teaching chairs. And it was a battle not always honorably waged.

The headstrong defenders of the traditional forces, led by the pugnacious William of St. Amour, made use of very questionable weapons. Lies, calumny, falsification, and slander were by no means uncommon. But on the other hand it is also reported that the Dominican scholars terrorized the professors of the secular clergy and even the rector of the university with their pressure tactics. This was the whirlpool into which Thomas was returning.

A new personal contact awaited him, with the Franciscan Bonaventure. It is true that the old annals make scant mention of a friendship between these two saintly teachers of Christendom. Yet there is a compelling truth in the thought that these two great ones, above the feuds of their followers, were linked in friendship. Thomas and Bonaventure, who had entered their respective orders in the same year, found themselves at that time in the same trying situation. Both men, as mendicants, had been refused permission to begin an independent teaching course at the university. As the result of an explicit papal order, both were finally granted permission on the same day.

It seemed at first that, for Thomas, the permission alone would not be enough, for the University boycotted his inaugural lecture. And later on, during one of his lectures, an official of the philosophical faculty and a follower of William of St. Amour (who had meanwhile been banished), got up and loudly recited a poem lampooning the mendicants. Still, such happenings could not prevent Thomas from becoming one of the most beloved and celebrated teachers at the Paris university.

In these stormy early years of his first teaching assignment, Thomas composed his first work, On Essence and Existence, a work with the sharp clarity of a mountain panorama. The noisy and disgraceful tempest of strife and jealousy in which he had to work had not been able to cloud the mirror of a single sentence. The earliest, almost contemporary, biography of Thomas, which was written by William of Tocco, Prior at Benevento, mentions repeatedly his enormous power of concentration. While he was writing the Summa Contra Gentiles, it frequently seemed as if his senses were numbed. Once, while dictating at night, he did not notice that the candle he was holding had burned down and singed his fingers.

The Summa Contra Gentiles, which in spite of its title is anything but a polemical work, was written in Italy. After he had taught three years as full professor of theology at the University of Paris, Thomas was called to the papal court, often located in those days at Viterbo or Orvieto.

From then until his death, Thomas never remained longer than two or three years in the same place or in the same office. He taught three years at the court of Urban IV. After that he went to Rome for two years, with the assignment to establish there a college for his order. At this time he conceived the outline and began working on the first part of the Summa Theologica, his enormous main work, on which he labored for seven years, without finishing it entirely.

After these two years in Rome, a new pope, Clement IV, called him once again to the papal court at Viterbo. The attempt, previously made, to appoint the mendicant friar Archbishop of Naples had been frustrated by his own resistance, even though he had been canonically designated. In Viterbo, Thomas again stayed only two years. Those were the years in which the tragedy of the last of the Hohenstaufens, the boy Konradin, was consummated. At that time, Thomas wrote his treatise On the Governance of Princes, which contains, among other things, the magnificent chapter on the reward of kings.

That, in 1263, the former professor of the University of Paris should be called back for a second time to Paris at the direction of his order was against all custom in the thirteenth century. However, a man of his intellectual powers, and perhaps, too, a man of his unshakable calm, was evidently urgently needed at the university. Thomas, for the third time, took the road to Paris. (Here it may be noted that, as a mendicant friar, Thomas made all these journeys on foot -- unless he had to take a ship to cross the waters -- in much the same way as his teacher, Albert, who walked through nearly the whole of Europe during his long life, earning thereby his nickname "the Boot.")

The returning teacher was awaited not by one opposing faction, but by three. The battle against the mendicants had ceased to center around teaching chairs; instead, the attacks were now directed against the theological and religious principles of the orders. The two additional factions, both aroused by the key word "Aristotle," were so-called Augustinianism and Latin Averroism. We shall have occasion to treat of these two opposing theories and the conflicts they aroused.

It appears that Thomas belonged to that race of men whose imposing calm grows in proportion to the noise and tumult around them. "We never knew him to lose his composure," remarked one of his confreres who had long lived in the same priory with him. At all events, the productivity of these years in Paris -- once again it was only a three-year period -- passes understanding.

In this brief, embattled period Thomas wrote, in addition to short polemic pamphlets, voluminous commentaries on nearly all the major works of Aristotle and on all the epistles of St. Paul as well as the gospel of St. John. He produced the great Quaestiones Disputatae on the virtues, and, as a short summary of the whole of theology, the Compendium Theologiae. Finally, he wrote numerous treatises for the Summa Theologica. In these works Thomas did not withdraw from the intellectual conflict. Rather, the works listed are for the most part contributions to it. And when, in 1272, his superiors recalled him from Paris (apparently on a sudden decision), their main intention was to cool the heat of that conflict.

In any case, his successor in the reaching chair inclined more strongly toward the Augustinian, i.e., the traditional direction. It also deserves to be mentioned that among the students of St. Thomas at Paris was a Florentine Dominican, Remigio de Girolami, who in later years was to become the teacher of his fellow-citizen, Dante.

Thomas was once more commissioned to found a college for the order, this time at the place of his first decision: Naples. But in the year after, the Pope summoned him to a new General Council at Lyons. Toward the end of the winter 1773-74, Thomas set out on the long journey whose goal he did not reach. On the way, in the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova, he fell mortally ill and a short time later died, not quite fifty years old. Later in the same year, Bonaventure also died, at the very council to which both men had been called.

At the canonization process, the abbot of Fossanova testified under oath that the community had not celebrated the Mass of the Dead at the funeral of St. Thomas but, instead, the Mass Os justi, in honor of a holy confessor, the Introit of which begins with the words: "The mouth of the just man shall meditate wisdom and his tongue shall speak judgment: the law of his God is in his heart."


Detail of Massetta's Saint Thomas and the Dove

It has been said that the work of St. Thomas is the most impersonal of the entire thirteenth century. It is true that, in the thirty volumes of his Opera Omnia, there is hardly a single immediately personal trait to discover -- unless we consider this very absence as a mirror of his personality. It is doubtless an accident, though a significant one, that only one letter of St. Thomas has come down to us -- the letter he wrote, shortly before his death, to the abbot of Monte Cassino. This single letter, however, deals with a textual difficulty in Gregory's Commentary on Job and is too much an expression of expert opinion to afford the opportunity -- as Goethe puts it -- "of preserving the immediacy (das Unmittelbare) of living existence" and revealing it to us.

Those, however, who knew Thomas personally, must have sensed from his immediate presence the qualities of saintliness. And he must have been singularly impressive -- a man of tall and erect bearing, at once strong and sensitive; with a mighty and commanding forehead, his skin gleaming like golden wheat, his face shining with a radiance that was never extinguished.

There could be no doubting the special holiness of this friar, who frequently could be seen pacing up and down the convent halls in great strides, head erect, alone, meditating. The witnesses at the canonization process, many of whom had long been associated with Thomas, had nothing to report concerning unusual ascetic exercises or mortifications. But they testified that Thomas loved peace, that he was sparing regarding himself, humble, and full of goodness for his fellows. He was a lover of poverty and his heart was entirely directed toward the divine.

One particular trait was named most frequently by the more than thirty witnesses, and often in first place: Castitas. St. Thomas must have been a man of such purity and radiance of character that everyone coming into his presence seemed to feel something like a fresh, cool breeze.

When Thomas was held prisoner in the isolation of the castle of San Giovanni, his brothers had tried in various ways to turn him from his decision to become a mendicant friar. (Reginald, one of the two brothers who had imprisoned him, was a poet of some note in his own day, known in particular for love poems in the vernacular. A Swedish scholar edited these poems during the first World War.)

One day the brothers sent a practiced courtesan into Thomas's chamber. We know only that he turned her out roughly. However, it seems that the twenty-year-old lad went in those few moments through a terrifying interior struggle. William of Tocco writes: Thomas immediately thereafter collapsed at the threshold of his chamber and fell exhausted into a deep sleep out of which he awoke with a loud scream. The scream was caused by an exceedingly painful operation. An angel had girded him tightly with a cincture in order to make him inviolable against all future temptation to impurity. Toward the end of his life Thomas related all of this to his friend and secretary, Reginald of Piperno.

Since we nowadays think that all a man needs for acquisition of truth is to exert his brain more or less vigorously, and since we consider an ascetic approach to knowledge hardly sensible, we have lost the awareness of the close bond that links the knowing of truth to the condition of purity. Thomas says that unchastity's first-born daughter is blindness of the spirit. Only he who wants nothing for himself, who is not subjectively "interested," can know the truth. On the other hand, an impure, selfishly corrupted will-to-pleasure destroys both resoluteness of spirit and the ability of the psyche to listen in silent attention to the language of reality.

To perceive this language, i.e., to grasp the truth of real things -- this is the true passion of St. Thomas. This fundamental character trait leads us to an understanding of his astonishing courage and his no less astonishing humility. When Thomas, for instance, ranged himself on the side of the pagan Aristotle against the traditional philosophico-theological trends (an undertaking requiring great boldness), he did this not from a spirit of opposition to traditional doctrines or from a mania for innovations, but rather because his intrepid approach to truth recognized the voice of reality in Aristotle's work.

This same intrepidity made him ask, in his Commentary on the Book of Job, whether Job's bold conversation with the Lord God did not violate reverence -- to which he gave the almost outrageous answer: truth does not change according to the standing of the person to whom it is addressed; he who speaks truthfully is invulnerable, no matter who may be his adversary.

Another facet of this courage is shown in an incident pertaining to his last years in Paris -- a time when the eyes of all Europe were fixed on him. At a public and formal disputation of some controversial points of his teaching, Thomas, after calmly presenting his arguments, had no hesitation to submit them for the final decision to the Bishop of Paris and the university faculty. (Many years later, the fiery Franciscan John Peckham, become Archbishop of Canterbury, who was Thomas's opponent in the dispute, recalled the incident with great admiration.)

If Thomas, at the height of his fame as a teacher, was capable of such humility, we have to see in it not so much the sign of modest self-effacement, but rather the courage to face truth, to which belongs the courage to see in a thesis neither less nor more than its premises warrant. This tranquil courage, neither afraid of rejection nor overly eager for approval, shows that Thomas was happily free of all self-importance. We have a prayer he wrote in which he asks God to let him be cheerful without falling into frivolity, and become mature without falling into pompousness.

We have become used to see in an intellectual dispute something in the nature of a fencing match, or at least of a contest with victors and vanquished. And by and large such disputes are carried on according to the rules of such contests. Thomas would have thought it unbearably self-important had anyone spoken of his "victory" over Averroes or Siger of Brabant. For him, an intellectual dispute was a common striving for the victory, not of one of the contenders, but of truth. Even the erring party, he says, is meritorious; for error, too, may serve to illuminate truth.

Accordingly, in his disputes with opponents of contrary positions, Thomas violates all fighting codes. He challenges the opponent not at the weakest spot in his position -- too cheap a procedure for Thomas, who was noble in more than name -- but, rather, he meets him precisely in the area of his strongest arguments.

Often enough Thomas is the first to bring the actual force of these arguments to light; frequently, it is through his formulations that the objections of his adversaries gain in persuasive power. Thus, in the study of such a work as the Summa Contra Gentiles, it is an exhilarating experience to see an intrepid mind meet the essential questions squarely, with no attempt at side -stepping them.

One cannot touch on the theme "Thomas and the truth" and remain silent about the devotion with which he was the teacher of truth. To lead a man from error to truth -- this he considered the greatest service which one man can render another.

And nothing characterized Thomas the teacher so strongly as his prayer and hope that his life would not outlast his teaching. Once he could no longer teach, then life itself might as well be taken away from him. Teaching, for Thomas, is something other and greater than to impart by one method or another the "findings of research"; something other and greater than the report of a thinker on the results of his inquiry, not to mention the ways and by-ways of his search.

Teaching is a process that goes on between living men. The teacher looks not only at the truth of things; at the same time he looks at the faces of living men who desire to know this truth. Love of truth and love of men -- only the two together constitute a teacher. No small part of the whole work of St. Thomas was written in answer to requests of friends -- sometimes the request of a prince, or, just as often, the request of a nobody. Once a young confrere from Venice, a "beginner," submitted to him no less than thirty-six separate questions, which were not even clearly formulated, and requested an answer within four days. Thomas, who could legitimately have excused himself with the excessive demands made on him by more important work, not only supplied the answers but also formulated the questions more precisely; and in addition to that, he met the requested time limit.

Teaching demands above all else the capacity of survey and of simplification, and the ability and effort to think from the premise of a beginners This capacity of true simplification St. Thomas possessed to a high degree, and he bent every effort to take his student's point of view as a premise. The best energies and the best part of his life he devoted not to a work of "research" but to a textbook for beginners, which is nonetheless the result of the deepest immersion into truth.

The Summa Theologica is expressly written ad eruditionein incipientium, for the instruction of beginners, as it is plainly stated several times in the preface. In this preface Thomas mentions the boredom produced by the over-familiar, and the confusion experienced by beginners through the excesses of misplaced scholarship. The teaching method of St. Thomas, contemporaries report, fascinated his students precisely through its freshness and originality. To quote Martin Grabmann, Thomas was the first to eliminate the underbrush of "scholastic" hair-splitting, which had already become traditional in the thirteenth century -- to be revived, it is true, in new profusion by the late Scholastics.

What astounding capacities of survey and simplification are revealed in the threefold division of the Summa Theologica: "In the first part we will treat of God, in the second, of the turning back of spirit-endowed creatures to God, in the third of Christ, Who is in His Humanity the Way on which we will succeed to God." What power of simplification in a sentence such as the following, which embraces a "summa" of Christian teaching on life: "Three kinds of knowledge are necessary to man for his salvation: the knowledge of what he must believe, the knowledge of that for which he must pray, and the knowledge of what he must do. The first is taught in the creeds of our Faith, the second in the prayer of the Lord, the third in the commandments."

The intimate fusion, in this towering mind, of the innate gift for probing, grasping, and illuminating reality to its depth, and the capacity for giving it inspired and convincing form as a teacher, becomes overwhelmingly evident in the tersely formulated eleventh chapter in the fourth book of the Summa Contra Gentiles. In this chapter, that stands perhaps unmatched even in Thomas's own work, he undertakes to describe the ordered structure of total reality, building it up from stone to angel and to God Himself, in a truly ravishing range of vision. This is what it says:

"Where things differ in nature, we find different modes of emanation. The more this emanation takes place in the innermost reality of a thing, the higher is its order of being. Now, of all things, the inanimate take the lowest place and from them no emanation is possible except by the action of one on another.....

The next higher order after inanimate bodies is formed by the plants whose emanation proceeds from within inasmuch as the plant's inner juice is converted into seed, which being committed to the soil grows into a new plant. Accordingly, we find here the first traces of life, since living things are those which move themselves into activity. Nevertheless, the plant's life is still imperfect, for although its emanation proceeds from within, that which emanates emerges out of it and is ultimately entirely outside it. Thus, from the juice of the tree, first the blossom is produced and then the fruit which, although still connected with the tree, is outside its bark. When the fruit is ripe it separates itself entirely from the tree, falls to the earth, and brings forth out of its own seminal force a new plant. Indeed, if we consider the matter carefully we shall see that the first principle of this emanation is something extraneous, for the inner juice of the tree is sucked up by the roots from the earth, whence the plant draws its nourishment.

Above the level of plant life is a higher level, that of the sensitive soul, the proper emanation whereof, though beginning from without, terminates within. Also, the further the emanation proceeds, the more does it penetrate within, for the sensible object impresses a form on the external senses, whence it passes to the imagination and, further still, to the storehouse of the memory.

Yet in every process of this kind of emanation, the beginning and the end are in different subjects, for no sensitive power reflects on itself. Therefore, this degree of life transcends that of plants insomuch as it is more intimate; and yet it is not a perfect life, since the emanation is always from one thing to another.

The highest degree of life, therefore, is that which is according to intellect, for the intellect reflects on itself and can understand itself. There are, however, in the intellectual life several levels to be distinguished. The human intellect, although it is capable of knowing itself, still takes the beginning of its knowledge from without. Man is not able to know without a sense image. More perfect is the life of the angel, whose knowing spirit does not acquire self-knowledge from without, but rather knows itself through itself.

Even so, life has still not reached its last and highest step, because the angel's spiritual image of itself, although wholly within it, is still not one with its being. For in the angel, to know and to be are not the same thing. Tne highest perfection of life belongs to God, Whose understanding is not distinguished from His Being.

For its true effect, this sovereignly constructed passage should be heard in the Latin. The language of St. Thomas does not have the quality of beauty proper to a work of art, as we find it, for instance, in Augustine; it is beautiful as a perfect instrument is beautiful. And yet, there are in the writings of St. Thomas numerous chapters whose sentences move in such rhythmic cadence toward their Conclusion their final "therefore," that one can think of no more fitting comparison than that with the determined stride of the final measures in an organ fugue by Johann Sebastian Bach. It would be strange indeed if, as a shallow judgment of the humanists has decreed, the secret of language should have been barred to the very man who gave Christendom the hymn: Adoro Te devote, Latens Deitas.


Saint Thomas' handwriting and a manuscript of his Summa

We have already mentioned the two opposing theories at the University of Paris against whom Thomas had to defend his own positions on God and the world. They were, firstly, the traditional and predominating trends, primarily philosophical but also theological, which we are accustomed to designate as Augustinianism; and secondly, Latin Averroism. From the viewpoint of these two opposing theories we have, perhaps, the best opportunity of making clear the unique character of St. Thomas's teaching.

In the strife between Thomas Aquinas and medieval Augustinianism two of the most revealing points in dispute were the following. Thomas taught the unity of the substantial form, while Augustinianism accepted several form-giving principles in man. Thomas asserted that all our knowledge, including the spiritual, and also our knowledge of God, took its starting point (and therefore always remained somehow dependent upon) sense perception, while Augustinianism claimed that spiritual knowledge was independent of sense perception. At first sight, this appears to be a petty quarrel between "schools." But for Thomas it involved nothing less than the saving of creation as a visible reality from any attempt at reduction, devaluation, or sheer annihilation.

What is the meaning of these two theses of St. Thomas? They mean that in man there is not one part -- the soul -- which is the "real" man, and another part -- the body, a separate reality -- which is the instrument or even the prison of the soul; rather, body and soul are an immediate existential unity. And further, that the "real" man is not the soul alone but precisely this existential unity of body and soul. The body belongs to the essence of man.

The second thesis means that it is not the spiritual soul which is the ultimate bearer of our knowledge, but man -- composed of body and soul. Therefore, our knowledge is always an image of our own being; knowledge is, like our being itself, an indissoluble unity of spiritual and corporal (sentient) principles.

These theses mean more than they directly express. In them is mirrored, as we have already remarked, that affirmation of the natural reality of creation which is so characteristic of St. Thomas: All created things are good because they were created by God. For the same reason, they have a reality and effectiveness of their own, which may not be ignored or obliterated through making absolute in one way or another the "spiritual" or "religious" element in man.

Moreover, the reality of creation in man, the natural light of his reason, his five senses, all the powers of his being, have their place and assignment in the make-up of man as Christian. (On the other hand, one may well say of St. Augustine, without violating the reverence due to this great saint and great thinker, that, as the history of Christian teaching shows, his work falls more easily into the danger of being construed or, rather, misconstrued in the sense of a de-actualization and devaluation of the visible reality of creation.)

Of course, Thomas is also aware of the injury caused to creation through original sin. In fact, he even says that the more deeply a man recognizes the true being of created things, the more this knowledge becomes for him a source of sadness -- because out of every created reality can arise a menace to salvation. But Thomas also knows that the same Christ Who founded the New Creation is simultaneously the eternal archetype of the first creation.

In his Commentary on St. John's Epistle, St. Thomas remarks that we can find in Sacred Scripture three different meanings for the term "the world": first, "the world" as the creation of God, and second, as the creation perfected in Christ; last, as the material perversion of the order of creation. To "the world" in this last-named sense, and to this world only, may one apply the saying of St. John: "The world is seated in wickedness" (I John 5:19) It is precisely the claim of St. Thomas that the first meaning of "world" (as creation) may not be identified nor interchanged with the third -- ("world" as material perversion of the order of creation); the world as creation is not seated in wickedness.

A single common denominator underlies all these theses. To affirm and accept the reality of creation in all its provinces is the response befitting quite particularly the Christian. This is the key to understanding his thesis on the unity of the substantial form in man. This is likewise the foundation of St. Thomas's teaching on the true place of natural reason and philosophy with regard to supernatural faith and theology. From the standpoint of his affirmation of the wholeness of creation, one may, perhaps, also understand the ease with which, in the Summa Theologica, he recommends bathing and sleeping as remedies against melancholy of the soul.

One of the most penetrating remarks in Chesterton's book on St. Thomas is the following: If, conformable to Carmelite custom, a fitting epithet such as John "of the Cross" or Therese "of the Child Jesus" were sought for Thomas Aquinas, the one most appropriate would be "Thomas of the Creator," Thomas a Creatore.

Only when we have truly recognized that the intention of St. Thomas is always directed toward God the Creator and His creation are we competent to evaluate his "Aristotelianism." Aristotle is for St. Thomas (in the measure in which he follows him) nothing more nor less than a clear mirror of the natural reality of creation, a great and rich mind in which the ordo of the natural universe was inscribed. Thomas confronted the work of Aristotle with greater freedom and independence than is normally the case in the attitude of a school toward the work of its master -- the "Thomistic" school not excepted.

It is also not correct to speak of a "Hellenizing" of Christian doctrine in the teaching of St. Thomas. When the Reformers of the sixteenth century attempted to "purge" Christian theology of the supposedly Hellenizing scholastic element, it became quickly evident (and in the properly "reformed" theology of Karl Barth, for example, it is still evident today) that they were risking the error of removing from the Christian consciousness the reality of creation itself. (It is an unhistorical legend that Luther burned the Summa Theologica along with the papal bull in the marketplace at Wittenberg. The true story of that incident, however, makes a more telling point. A recently uncovered report of that auto-da-fe  testifies that there was the intention of burning the Summa along with the papal document, but no one could be found who was willing to part with his copy! )

Far from being or signifying a secularization of genuine Christian teaching, the affirmation of the reality of creation in the theology of St. Thomas surges from the very depths of Christian intuition, namely, from reverence for the reality of the Incarnation of God. According to St. Thomas, the Evangelist John had deliberately said the Word was made flesh, in order to exclude the Manichaean principle that the body is evil.

It is this altogether religious and theological root which differentiates St. Thomas's openness to the world from the truly secularizing concepts of his second and more dangerous opponent -- Latin Averroism, named after Averroes (1126-1198), one of the great Arabian commentators on Aristotle. We are not concerned here with the individual points of teaching (the numerical unity of the intellect in all men, the eternity of the world, the denial of free will).

The decisive point is that Averroism radically severed the connection between faith and reason, between theology and philosophy . It maintained the complete independence of philosophical thinking from faith and theology. Moreover, it overvalued excessively this separated philosophical thinking, inasmuch as it expected to find in it the true and final wisdom, i.e., an answer which would satisfy the human spirit inquiring into the meaning of the world and human life. To this, Thomas says: The Christian can neither seek nor find a wisdom outside Christ. A single divine grace exceeds, in its existential value, the whole of the natural universe.

One notices that by this decisive secularization of thought, Latin Averroism is fundamentally the forerunner of the Renaissance and, therefore, of modern philosophy and science in general.

This family likeness extends to another, rarely noticed characteristic. In Latin Averroism appeared, for the first time, the purely historical approach to the interpretation of philosophy -- the opinion that the true object of philosophy is its own history. For Siger of Brabant, the leader of the Averroists at the University of Paris, the study of philosophy signifies the exploration of the historical systems of philosophy, irrespective of whether they were true or false. Here for the first time appears that modern type of philosopher who, instead of discussing his true subject, reality, discusses something quite different, the philosophies.

A magnificent and invigorating retort given by Thomas to Siger of Brabant should preface all translations and interpretations of Thomas, in order to cut short from the very start any attempt to take the "Universal Teacher" of the Church himself as a merely "historical" phenomenon: "The study of philosophy does not mean to learn what others have thought but to learn what is the truth of things."

In spite of this unequivocal opposition and in spite of the enormous differences between Thomas and Averroism, it is apparently Thomas's destiny to be confused with his secularized opponent. Three years after the death of St. Thomas, for example, several misinterpreted propositions from his writings were condemned by the Bishop of Paris and enumerated on the same list with the errors of Averroism.

Since that time, not only has Thomas been canonized by the Church; he is also the first man, as Martin Grabmann says, to be canonized qua theologian and teacher. Moreover, Thomas has been solemnly declared a Doctor of the Church -- and, indeed, the "Universal Doctor of the Church." Pius XI says of him that the Church testifies in every way that she has made his teaching her own.

Yet the censure that his teaching is tainted with a virtually pagan worldliness has persisted since the days when William of St. Amour wrote against Albert and his great pupil: "They arrogate divine wisdom to themselves, although they are more familiar with worldly wisdom." To which Thomas answered: "The opinion of those who say with regard to the truth of faith that it is a matter of complete indifference what one thinks about creation, provided one has a true interpretation of God... is notoriously false. For an error about creation is reflected in a false opinion about God."

This censure is likely to take the following forms: the confidence which St. Thomas puts in natural reason goes beyond the Christian norm; his philosophy and theology are much too rational, indeed too rationalistic; they have a tendency to offer facile, all-inclusive "solutions" to all questions; the harsh daylight of his syllogisms deprives the human spirit of the dark glow of the mysteries of our faith; the element of mystery in supernatural truth is almost totally suppressed in favor of its supposedly demonstrable rationality . . . and so on.

It is indisputably true that a great number of "neo-scholastic" or "Thomistic" presentations, "according to the teaching of St. Thomas," provide real cause and seeming justification for such objections. Thomas himself, however, goes so far in the recognition of mystery, both in creation and in God, that for us modern Christians, who seldom hear about the incomprehensibility of God, it comes as a cause of alarm when we find our ignorance so intrepidly and clearly pointed out in the Summa Theologica.

For in this "summary" of his teaching on God, Thomas begins by saying: "Because we are not capable of knowing what God is but only what He is not, we cannot contemplate how God is but only how He is not." Evidently, Thomas did not wish to withhold this basic thought of "negative" theology even from the beginner. And in the Quaestiones Disputatae is even said: "Hoc est ultimum cognitionis humanae de Deo; quod sciat se Deum nescire, this is the ultimate in human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know Him."

There is a saying frequently heard among Thomists which expresses a significant fact: Thomas feared logic as little as he feared mystery. He who fears the bold light of logic will never penetrate into the region of real mysteries. The man who does not use his reason will never get to that boundary beyond which reason really fails. In the work of St. Thomas all ways of creaturely knowing have been followed to the very end -- to the boundary of mystery. And the more intensely we pursue these ways of knowledge, the more is revealed to us -- of the darkness, but also of the reality of mystery.


Sasetta's Saint Thomas before the Crucifix

The last word of St. Thomas is not communication but silence. And it is not death which takes the pen out of his hand. His tongue is stilled by the superabundance of life in the mystery of God. He is silent, not because he has nothing further to say; he is silent because he has been allowed a glimpse into the inexpressible depths of that mystery which is not reached by any human thought or speech.

The acts of the canonization process record: On the feast of St. Nicholas, in the year 1273, as Thomas turned back to his work after Holy Mass, he was strangely altered. He remained steadily silent; he did not write; he dictated nothing. He laid aside the Summa Theologica on which he had been working. Abruptly, in the middle of the treatise on the Sacrament of Penance, he stopped writing.

Reginald, his friend, asks him, troubled: "Father, how can you want to stop such a great work?" Thomas answers only, "I can write no more." Reginald of Pipemo seriously believed that his master and friend might have become mentally ill through his overwhelming burden of work. After a long while, he asks and urges once again. Thomas gives the answer: "Reginald, I can write no more. All that I have hitherto written seems to me nothing but straw."

Reginald is stunned by this reply. Some time later, as he had often done before, Thomas visits his younger sister, the Countess of San Severino, near Salerno. It is the same sister who had aided Thomas in his escape from the castle of San Giovanni, nearly thirty years ago. Shortly after his arrival, his sister turns to his traveling companion, Reginald, with a startled question: what has happened to her brother? He is like one struck dumb and has scarcely spoken a word to her. Reginald once more appeals to Thomas: Would he tell him why he has ceased writing and what it is that could have disturbed him so deeply? For a long time, Thomas remains silent. Then he repeats: "All that I have written seems to me nothing but straw... compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me."

This silence lasted throughout a whole winter. The great teacher of the West had become dumb. Whatever may have imbued him with a deep happiness, with an inkling of the beginning of eternal life, must have aroused in the men in his company the disturbing feeling caused by the uncanny.

At the end of this time, spent completely in his own depths, Thomas began the journey to the General Council at Lyons. His attention continued to be directed inward. The acts of the canonization report a conversation which took place on this journey between Thomas and Reginald. It seems to have arisen out of a long silence and to have receded immediately into a long silence. This brief exchange clearly reveals to what degree the two friends already live in two different worlds. Reginald, encouragingly: "Now you are on your way to the Council, and there many good things will happen; for the whole Church, for our order, and for the Kingdom of Sicily." And Thomas: "Yes, God grant that good things may happen there! "

The prayer of St. Thomas that his life should not outlast his teaching career was answered. On the way to Lyons he met his end.

The mind of the dying man found its voice once more, in an explanation of the Canticle of Canticles for the monks of Fossanova. The last teaching of St. Thomas concerns, therefore, that mystical book of nuptial love for God, of which the Fathers of the Church say: the meaning of its figurative speech is that God exceeds all our capabilities of possessing Him, that all our knowledge can only be the cause of new questions, and every finding only the start of a new search.

To glimpse something of the heart and soul of Saint Thomas here is just one example of his great eucharistic hymns, composed for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Perhaps even more than his great theological treatises -- works of art as well -- we see the fervent and simple faith that filled every fiber of his being! Alongside the ultimately untranslatable Latin of Saint Thomas I give the incomparable attempt at such a translation -- by the priest-poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins.


by Thomas Aquinas

Translation by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Adoro te devote, latens Deitas
Quae sub his figuris vere latitas.
Tibi se cor meum totum subiicit,
Quia te contemplans totum deficit.

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur,
Sed auditu solo tuto creditur:
Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius:
Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius.

In Cruce latebat sola Deitas,
At hic latet simul et humanitas:
Ambo tamen credens atque confitens
Peto quod petivit latro poenitens.

Plagas, sicut Thomas, non intueor;
Deum tamen meum te confiteor;
Fac me tibi semper magis credere
In te spem habere, te diligere.

ĦO memoriale, mortis Domini!
Panis vivus, vitam praestans homini:
Praesta meae menti de te vivere,
Et te illi semper dulce sapere.

Pie pellicane, Iesu Domine,
Me inmundum munda tuo Sanguine:
Cuius una stilla salvum facere
Totum mundum quit ab omni scelere.

Iesu, quem velatum nunc aspicio,
Oro fiat istud quod tans sitio:
Ut te revelata cernens facie,
Visu sim beatus tuae gloriae. Amen

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.

On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men,
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
 Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.

Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran---
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.

Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory's sight. Amen.

And here's another beautiful freer translation of portions of ADORO TE DEVOTE:


With all the powers my poor soul hath
Of humble love and loyal faith
thus low, my God, I bow to thee,
whom too much love bowed lower for me.

Down, down, proud sense, discourses die,
and all adore faith's mystery!
Faith is my skill, faith can believe
as fast as love new laws can give.

Faith is my force, faith strength affords
to keep pace with those powerful words;
and words more sure, more sweet than they
love could not think, truth could not say.

O dear memorial of that death,
which still survives and gives us breath,
live ever, bread of life, and be
my food, my joy, my all to me.

( translation of Richard Crashaw, adpd. John Austin)


THE SUMMA THEOLOGICA of Saint Thomas Aquinas (paperback)

Truly one of the greatest books ever conceived or written -- impossible to summarize this "Summa" or "Summary" of Theology! As Joseph Pieper pointed out in the above essay, when some reformers attempted to burn "Romish" books, they wished to burn along with others copies of St Thomas' Summa Theologica. But no one would part with their copy! The Summa Theologica is truly a work of genius, a work of art, a work of a saint! Unique in all the world!

You can order this fine set of volumes, finely translated by the English Dominicans, at Amazon---

THE SUMMA THEOLOGICA of Saint Thomas Aquinas (paperback)

This link (and the click on book cover) is for the paperback edition, which is cheaper but Amazon says it may take several weeks to ship. Below the book cover there is another link to the hardback volumes, more expensive, but shipped, it says, usually within 24 hours!

For Hardbound Volumes, shipped sooner, you can order it below:

THE SUMMA THEOLOGICA of Saint Thomas Aquinas (hardbound)

ST THOMAS AQUINAS:THE DUMB OX by Gilbert Keith Chesterton

What a book this is! Written about a saint, larger than life, by a convert to the Catholic Church, himself larger than life!  St Thomas -- and his philosophy and theology and spirituality--become "larger than life" in this little gem. Chesterton was not a trained philosopher or theologian, yet great "Thomists" have acclaimed this book as the best ever written on St Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor. Read it and you will know afresh why when fellow students called Thomas "the dumb ox" his teacher/mentor St Albert the Great said: "Someday his bellow will resound through the whole world" -- NOW KNOWN AS "THE UNIVERSAL DOCTOR!"

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The third is the book from which the above essay is taken The Silence of Saint Thomas by Joseph Pieper; and the remaining sections are a fascinating look into the vision of Saint Thomas. Part II is entitled "The Negative Element in the Philosophy of St Thomas" with subsections: "Perceiving the Unexpressed" "The Hidden Key: Creation" "'To be True' Means to be Creatively Thought" "Things Can be Known because they are Created" "Hope as the Structure of Creaturely Knowledge". Part III is entitled "The Timeliness of Thomism" with subsections: "What is Timeliness?" "What is Thomism?" "From Kierkegaard to Sartre: Distrust of Systematic Philosophy" "Thomas Aquinas: Negative Philosophy" "A Note on Created Things and Artifacts" "Inexhaustible Light" "The End of 'Pure' Philosophy" "'Thomism' as an Attitude" "Truth and Timeliness" "Postscript."

Pieper, recently deceased, was a worthy "disciple" of Saint Thomas; and his own life and writings share some of the radiance and holiness of the Universal, Angelic Doctor himself!

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