In my last post, I introduced the person of Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth century theologian and mendicant friar in the newly formed Order of Preachers. Today I want to outline my own reasons for agreeing with the eminent moral theorist, Philippa Foot, who writes: “It is my opinion that the Summa Theologica is one of the best sources we have for moral philosophy, and moreover that St. Thomas’s ethical writings are as useful to the atheist as to the Catholic or other Christian believer.” Why would Foot, an avowed atheist who is said not to have had a religious bone in her body, counsel us to turn to a medieval theologian for answers about the good life? Why doesn’t she just stick with the more familiar and accepted Aristotelian source material?
This is the first in a series of posts that will address a question I am frequently asked by academics (especially philosophers), students, and the curious at large: Why read and write about Aquinas in a contemporary theoretical context? Or, more pointedly, How can a Medieval Scholastic theologian be relevant to our secular culture and academy? It’s a great question and I’ll attempt to explain my own reasons, though I’ll also state up front that I’m not sure whether it’s any weirder or more problematic to turn to the thought of a Medieval friar than it is to turn to the thought of the Ancient Greeks. In either case, one is attracted to those truths that appear to transcend the remote and alien cultures in which they were first articulated.
Since Aquinas–unlike Aristotle–is not frequently taught in philosophy departments in a serious way, it’s best to begin my explanation with a prior and more pressing question: Who is Aquinas?
Thomas Aquinas was born into a noble and politically influential family sometime between 1224 and 1226 in what is now Southern Italy (his father was Landulph, Count of Aquino; hence the name Aquinas). At five Aquinas was sent by his family to study at the Monastery of Monte Cassino, in the hopes that an education there would lead to a prominent ecclesiastical appointment. About ten years later, however, Aquinas’s family has him leave the monastery to attend the first “state” university of the period, the University of Naples, probably in the hope that he will serve the Emperor Frederick II in some official capacity. In Naples Aquinas receives a traditional liberal arts education, and is introduced for the first time to the writings of Aristotle. He also gets mixed up with some radicals, in particular the newly founded mendicant preachers, the Dominicans (calling them radicals is not in the least extreme; to the establishment classes, they were thought to be ridiculous fools at best, demented and dangerous heretics at worst). The Dominicans, like the Franciscans, promoted a way of life that combined apostolic poverty and direct contact with ordinary people; such a choice of life stood in stark contrast to the wealthy and sheltered monastic life at Monte Cassino. For the Dominicans the life of study was especially important, as they charged themselves with the task of preaching the faith, including the idea that the life of virtue is necessary for happiness.
At about 18 or 19 Thomas informs his parents that he intends to become an itinerant, “begging friar.” In a contemporary American context, it would be like the son of a prominent conservative politician turning down a powerful internship in DC in order to start up his own organic homestead in the woods. His parents were obviously none too pleased with this turn of events. In fact, they basically kidnapped Thomas on his way to Paris and put him under house arrest in the hope that he would come to his senses. But Thomas would not relent, and eventually in 1245 his family allows him to study in Paris at a Dominican convent. It is here that he first meets his famous teacher, Albert the Great, a fellow admirer of Aristotle.
For the rest of his life Aquinas dedicates most of his efforts to tackling the big questions in human life: what we ought to believe (and why) and how we ought to live (and why). In the context of the University of Paris where he began his career, Aquinas is held in suspicion by many of his colleagues, for two main reasons: (1) his appropriation of and fondness for Aristotle, which alarmed theological conservatives and (2) his status as a mendicant friar. Indeed, his inaugural lecture was boycotted by many prominent faculty. The Dominicans soon sent Aquinas to work directly with young friars in various cities in Italy, and his university career only lasted for seven years.
In 1274 Aquinas dies on his way to advise at the Second Council of Lyons. Shortly before his death he had stopped writing altogether (depending on the source, one reads he either had a nervous breakdown or a mystical vision; in either case he saw no point in writing any more, and he left his great Summa Theologiae unfinished). After his death, parts of Aquinas’s writings are condemned as heretical by the Bishop of Paris, and his work was, for a time, basically ignored. Eventually, however, he would become one of the most influential thinkers in the West. Doubtless nothing would have surprised the humble friar more than his intellectual legacy and our contemporary perception of him as an “establishment” figure. There was little evidence in his own time that this would be his fate.
In my next post, I will begin to discuss how Aquinas’s life impacts his thought about virtue and human nature, and why Aquinas is so central to our own investigation into these topics.
Jennifer A. Frey is a Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina.