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Great Minds - Thomas Aquinas 1225–1274

Thomas Aquinas was born into a noble family in Italy. He went to study at the University of Naples, where he learnt about the ancient Greek and Roman authors whom Christian academics had previously ignored. While in Naples, Aquinas also encountered the Dominicans. He was intrigued by them and decided to join the order against the will of his family. The move did not go down well, and as the story goes, his family’s questionably pious response was to kidnap him and lock him in a tower they owned. In desperation, Aquinas wrote letters to the Pope, making his case and pleading to be set free. But the Pope was too busy with political matters to consider Aquinas’s letters. In the meantime, Aquinas spent his time writing letters to Dominican monks and tutoring his sisters. Eventually, the family came around and accepted their son's wishes to join the Dominican order. Subsequently, Aquinas went to the University of Paris, where he spent much of the rest of his life teaching theology and writing books. He became a prolific author writing some 200 pieces on Christian theology. The two works for which he is best known are Summa Theologica and Summa contra Gentiles.

At the University of Parish, Aquinas’ career was off to a rocky start. It was a time of intellectual and theological turbulence partly caused by the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy, which was impacting widely throughout Western European intellectual culture due to the encounter with Islam's then far more advanced civilisation. He was caught between those who promoted the introduction of the philosophy of Aristotle and those who opposed it. Eventually, his own reasoned response achieved a synthesis between Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy. After reading Aristotle, Aquinas concluded that even though Aristotle was not Christian, he still had many great ideas, and we can still learn from him. He admired Aristotle and made a highly important argument for the compatibility of religious belief and rational thought. As a result, his writings are both philosophical and theological since he seeks to present the Christian faith in the form of a rational system.

One of Aquinas’s central concerns was to understand right from wrong. He proposed that the universe operated according to two kinds of law: ‘natural law’ and divine ‘eternal law’. The laws worked out by our own experience of the world are natural laws. For example, we could find out for ourselves how to smelt iron, build roads, or organise an economy. But there were revealed ‘eternal’ laws that reason could not arrive at on its own, or so it was assumed at the time. In a commentary on the Roman philosopher Boethius, Aquinas wrote that the established practice assumed the human mind cannot know any truth unless it is illuminated by light from God. In contrast, Aquinas argued that ‘it is not necessary that the human mind should be endowed with any new light from God in order to understand those things which are within its natural field of knowledge.’

Aquinas’s fundamental move was to create a valid space for ‘natural law’. He argued that relying solely on the Bible could overshadow personal observation and experience, leading people to discount their own discoveries. People would be so impressed by revelation from authority that they would discount the power of observation and what they can discover independently. What Aquinas was trying to achieve was to show that both natural and revealed laws are equally important. The problem emerges when we exclusively favour one over the other, depending on our biases.

To this day, the tension between higher authority and personal experience remains. Though today authority doesn’t always mean consulting the Bible. In modern sociology, it is known as the tension between autonomy and control. It often manifests in a struggle between a minority group or an individual and larger social forces. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) is a good example. Various individual women in Atwood’s novel struggle against a new American society (the Republic of Gilead) that takes away women’s rights. Similarly, in Albert Camus’ The Outsider (1944), the anti-hero meets a bad end because they don’t play by society’s rules.

The main point for Aquinas is that natural law is an integral part of eternal law and can be discerned by using the power of independent reasoning. As a man of deep faith, Aquinas provided a framework for the process of doubt and open scientific inquiry. He reminds us that wisdom can spring out of surprising places. From the Bible and tradition, but also from rationality and empirical reasoning; from science and research, but also from revelation and introspection.

*First Published in Touchstone July 2023

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