Latest News

The ‘dumb ox’ who became the greatest of the medieval Doctors of the Church

St Thomas was capable of dictating to four secretaries at the same time

Thomas Aquinas (c 1225-74) was the greatest of the medieval Doctors of the Church. His life was devoted to prayer, teaching, writing and travel; his labours astound alike by quality and extent.

Although Aquinas had little knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, as a theologian he was unrivalled in intellectual power, capable of dictating to four secretaries at the same time.

Yet he showed absolute single-mindedness in pursuing his fundamental aim: to use Aristotelian methods of scientific rationalism to support the doctrines of Christian faith and revelation.

The son of the count of Aquino, which lies on the ancient border of the papal states, mid-way between Rome and Naples, Thomas could claim kinship with the kings of Aragon, Castile and France, as well as with the Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II.

When, at 19, he joined the mendicant Dominicans his family was so shocked that his military brothers kidnapped him. Released after a
year, Thomas studied in Paris and Cologne. A contemporary described him as “tall, erect, large and well-built, with a complexion like white wheat, and a head which early grew bald”.

“We call this man a dumb ox,” said his teacher St Albert, “but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world.” Yet Aquinas the man always remained modest and unassuming, as rich in spirit as in mind.

From 1252 he taught in Paris. There is a story of him dining at the court of Louis IX (St Louis) and passing the meal sunk in abstraction while the social butterflies gossiped around him. Then suddenly Thomas concluded his lucubrations, brought his great fist crashing down upon the table, and declared: “That will settle the Manicheees.”

In 1259 his superiors sent Aquinas back to Italy, where he remained for 10 years, organising Dominican schools, and teaching in Anagni, Orvieto, Rome and Viterbo.

Around 1266 Aquinas began his Summa Theologica, the systematic expression of his mature thought. Although he never finished this work it became over the centuries, pace the Scotists, the bedrock of Catholic orthodoxy.

From 1269 to 1272 Aquinas was again in Paris, before being recalled to Naples. There, in 1273, he experienced a vision of such intensity that he abandoned writing.

“All I have composed,” he said, “seems to me like so much straw compared with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”

Summoned to the Council of Lyon in 1274, Aquinas died at Fossa Nuova, south of Rome. Let G K Chesterton conclude his mortal history: “He confessed his sins and he received his God; and we may be sure that the great philosopher had entirely forgotten philosophy. The confessor ran forth as if in fear, and whispered that his confession had been that of a child of five.”