Saint Thomas Aquinas: An Important Heritage

By Ottavio De Bertolis SJ, 9 June 2024
Thomas Aquinas by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1650). Image: Wikimedia Commons


Receiving an Inheritance

When we receive an inheritance, many different things can happen. One option is we can ignore it and so forfeit it to others. Or we may divide it among relatives and friends, with each taking a small share; but the real value was to be found in the totality of the bequest, and if thus dispersed it somehow loses its greatness. We could throw a big party in memory of the wealthy relative, or take a relaxing cruise. Thus in a moment we would exhaust the legacy. We could accept it and, like the fearful servant in the Gospel, bury it in the ground. We could keep what we have received in the bank, but it will not bear much fruit. Alternately, we could receive it, put it to work, redistribute it by new purchases, allowing ourselves to enjoy experiences unknown to the donor, the source of the legacy.

So it is with the legacy of St. Thomas Aquinas, as we reflect on this, the 800th anniversary of his birth.[1] We are dealing with a giant of thought, from whom, however, we are separated by centuries of history, civil and ecclesial. His thought reached into every corner of human knowledge, at least of that era. Countless authors in every time period and up to our own day have referred to him, showing the perennial vitality of his intellect and the expansive capacity of his insights and reasoning. At times his thought has been respected and cherished; and at other times it has stiffened it into rather ideological patterns, with Thomism as the “official” doctrine, in which, however, little of authentic Thomistic thought remained. The history of the reception of Thomas’ thought, even when it has been distorted, is as interesting as the history of his authentic contribution. It can truly be said that he remains an absolutely indispensable author for anyone who wants to deal not only with medieval thinking, but also with modern and postmodern thinking, providing the inquirer with keys to critical interpretations that are still legitimate today.

Being Before Thinking

We can never make comparisons between such eminent thinkers, but certainly to read St. Augustine is more exciting than to read Aquinas. In the writing of the Bishop of Hippo there vibrates an anxiety, a thirst, a quest, a human and spiritual journey that has much in common with the concerns of people today. Some of his pages are, even stylistically, timeless and belong, before theology, to world literature. Thomas, instead, is calm, quiet, composed in tone and expression. Some of his legacy is in the form of university lectures, whether the exposition of a text, sacred or profane, or a commentary, in the form of an actual lecture, or in the form of debate and discussion, such as is evident in the Summa Theologiae, surely his monumental work par excellence.

The flat exposition of the arguments, for and against, the resolution of difficulties, the determinatio magistralis, that is the solution put forward by the teacher, certainly do not make the listener’s innermost being vibrate like the account of the experience of grace that moved Augustine, which is fascinating and moving even today. Yet we would be wrong if we wanted to relegate Thomas for his mode of teaching to the sad and gray corner of a cultural experience, called “scholastic,” as if to suggest a kind of mental petty-mindedness as the basis of an intellectual system.

Here is a case in point: “Truth does not change according to the person who says it, so if someone affirms the truth, that person cannot be defeated by any opponent in a dispute.”[2] This statement testifies to the intellectual freedom of someone who belongs to no school and to no psychological or intellectual school except that which should unite all of us: the search for the true, the just, the good and, ultimately, the search for God, known by faith, sought and found in God’s relations with all created reality.[3] This is not a rhetorical expression, or one vibrant with emotion, but it encompasses, at its core, a limpid view of things, such a profound relationship with others and with the world that allows us to grasp something of the soul of the saint, who seems to have lived what the apostle James writes about wisdom as it should be in the Church, that is, among men and women who have encountered Christ, the supreme truth and principle of it: “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy” (Jas 3:17).[4] In the end, it is a contemplative look at existence, resembling happiness rather than other emotions.

This is an important legacy that we should recognize and embrace. In times when it is so easy to succumb to oppositional or exclusive ways of thinking, to scornful and shouted invective, Christian intellectuals can learn from Thomas not to have enemies, including among themselves. One very significant testimony is that of Rudolf von Jhering, a Protestant jurist of the nineteenth century, who wrote thus to a Catholic reviewer who pointed out to him the existence of the Summa Theologiae: “I continue to wonder how it was possible that such truths, after having been openly proclaimed, should have fallen into oblivion so completely in our Protestant-minded scientific culture. How many errors it could have spared itself if it had taken due account of them.”[5]

School of his Time

It may make one smile a little that in the brief Prologue to the Summa, Thomas states that he is setting out to deal with what pertains to the Christian religion in a manner suitable for the instruction of those beginning to study, for “novices,” as he calls them. The work is intended not for experienced intellectuals or doctors, but for simple students who are just beginning.[6] According to the saint they can be hindered in their study in many ways, partly by the multiplication of useless questions, the articles that contain them, and complex reasoning; and then, partly, because the things necessary for knowledge are not presented according to what the order of discipline would require, but randomly, in the exposition of books or according to the nature of the dispute; or then again because their frequent repetition generates annoyance and confusion in the minds of the listeners.

Who knows what St. Thomas would say today to us, dwellers in the dark forest of fake news, of a culture often abhorred and enslaved to pre-constituted theses! All of this is accomplished, today as then, by obscuring some truths that might well be affirmed, but many do not have the courage to do so, or, by exaggerating others, causing one to lose objectivity and balance in that overall framework of information and reflection that we call “culture.” The occupation of the centers of cultural production has been, and still is, an inescapable fact. Those who control publishing houses, theater, literature with its awards, information, and the universities, in fact hold the keys to the future of a community, determining its present.[7] This applies – by extension, and probably much more – to television and social media as well.

In fact, the thing that may seem to have waned, but instead is a legacy to be regained, is the taste for questions. The Summa is in fact a book of questions and not a set of answers, as it was sometimes presented. This is a peculiar feature of the medieval school, an invention of Christian thinkers.[8] Thomas is unthinkable without the University, and therefore understanding the method of the School of Paris, which he made his own, is the key to understanding not only his thought, which belongs as such to him and not to a school, but also his intellectual way of proceeding,[9] and is also a legacy to be received.

At the center, then, is the question, and not the answer, debate, and not authority. The philosophia perennis does not in fact refer to a perpetuity of answers, but of questions. One of the most repeated clichés is that in the Middle Ages the principle of authority was everything and recapitulated every argument. But Thomas himself states that authority, in human affairs, does not make the truth of a statement.[10] Instead, it would be interesting to reflect on the changing face of authority that creates truth, especially in a world dominated by a mass media culture and conditioned by many lobbies, which also determine thought and mentality. The need to appear fashionable and the fear of seeming backward, opportunism and the weight of politics involving the “powers-that-be,” as they are called, actually exert significant influence, much more than one would think. Academic or editorial logic, and the idol of the audience – not just digital distribution – make one learn what the article is, so to speak, that sells. Again, Thomas’ intellectual freedom is a legacy for today, at least if one conceives of intellectual work as a true service to the community, to help people free themselves from conditioned reflexes or a mindset subservient to others’ interests. Thus, an honest intellectual should be able to unmask superficial formulas or analyses that survive only in chatter or the repetition of handed-down slogans.

In short, St. Thomas reminds us of our obligation to think for ourselves and not to take the advice of others even if well paid. This can be compared to the well-known adage, sapere aude (“dare to know”), albeit reflected in a post-modern key: dare to pull yourself out, if necessary, from what others would have you think, and try to think for yourself. And try to think well, because simply thinking is not enough unless we think well.

The quaestio reproduces a lesson, that is, a scholastic, medieval debate, and is an account of it. From here we can extrapolate, for today, a rigorous intellectual method, which is specified as follows: the appeal to authorities, to authoritative opinions which we all find ourselves professing, can never take on the peremptory tone of a Roma locuta, causa finita (‘Rome has spoken; the matter is settled’), but is the beginning of a dialectical unfolding of the problem, comparing and analyzing different points of view. The differences between the various authors must be thematized, their arguments rigorously examined, finally arriving at an answer. This can never be a compromise solution, which is a logical absurdity: if contradictory views are asserted, one will be right, and another will be wrong; and yet it is necessary to understand why and in what sphere the different reasons for each are situated. This is the meaning of the determinatio magistralis, the teaching of the teacher, who “de-terminates,” puts an end to the question by defining the terms, the boundaries, the proper spheres of the opposing theses, the arguments put forward, in order to save them insofar as possible, according to that peaceful gaze proper to a true Christian intellectual. We learn to distinguish in order to save each other’s arguments, even if, in order to save them, we have to delimit their application to a particular sphere.

Developing a Christian Culture

More important than all these legacies of Thomas, however, remains another aspect of his work, the challenge he faced to elaborate a Christian culture, so necessary even for our time. Of course, he stands here in the wake of the Church Fathers and the great doctors who had come before: first and foremost, St. Augustine, who surpasses all in the number of quotations. And yet his work acquires a significance that is far more personal than theirs. The early Fathers elaborated a Christian culture on the ruins of the ancient world and thus laid the foundations for a Christendom in the form of a Europe which was to be born out of the collapse of the old world, merging into unity the legacy of the three sites of the ancient world: the Parthenon, the Capitol and Golgotha. In this sense, their work was authentically culture-creating and decisive for the very identity of Western society today.

Thomas, on the other hand, is writing in an era, the thirteenth century, in which, for the first time in centuries, we see a complete and systematic doctrinal approach, the approach of Aristotelian thought, bursting onto the continent, providing a total and perfect vision of the world, of man, of the city, and absolutely prescinding from God, sufficient in itself.[11] The danger of a complete secularization of thought, as we might say today, was real. Non regnat Spiritus Christi ubi dominatur spiritus Aristotelis,[12] asserted Absalon of St. Victor, and indeed in the Universities – late-medieval creations, so different from the previous cathedral and capitular school and the trivium and quadrivium, inherited from the ancient school – that innovative and dangerous spirit was beginning to be breathed in.

The Church could have closed in, entrenching itself in defense of a past that was now irretrievable, lamenting, with William of Saint-Amour, the dangers of these “last times.”[13] St. Thomas took up this challenge. He did not baptize Aristotle, as one sometimes hears, which for us means that, as intellectuals, we should not baptize those who do not want to be baptized. Rather, he understood Aristotle for what he was saying, and expressed his own thought in Aristotelian terms, not repeating what the Stagirite asserted, but creating, through the interaction between the Gospel and ancient texts, a new mode of thinking.  Thus, for example, he goes beyond the category of substance, a sufficient explanatory criterion of reality for Aristotle, through the mediation of the text of Exodus, “I am who I am” (Exod 3:14), which will become the key to his metaphysics, the actus essendi, the “act of being” further and foundational to individual, created existences. St. Thomas elaborates a new metaphysics using the Bible: thus, he overturns Aristotelian metaphysics, passing through it and finally overcoming it.

In this sense, we might derive from him a way of proceeding in developing a Catholic culture, not a flattening out, borrowing others’ conceptions, nor a stiffening in the defense of a system conceived as a closed circle, but a development of one’s own identity, thematizing the differences with respect to other cultures and re-connecting Catholic diversity to the Gospel itself, which always goes beyond every culture and opens them to new possibilities for expansion. In order to do this fruitfully, a twofold exercise is necessary: in contemporary culture, in what it is; and in the sacred text, the sacred page, in the tradition elaborated and lived by the Church. Thus Thomas, because he possessed an uncommon knowledge of Aristotle, which even the learned men of his time did not have, was able, with his categories and thought, to express the Christian faith he lived and celebrated in worship, loading and enriching the ancient words with new meanings, bending and transforming their meaning and thus creating a new culture. In this way, one is able to bring out at the same time the germs of the Gospel – the semina Verbi – present in every culture, and the authentic thirst for the Absolute that it expresses in those who traditionally, and perhaps superficially, are seen as “distant.” Yet one is also able to understand why he did not, nor could not, come to it.

In fact, one of the reasons for contemporary unbelief is the lack of porosity, or mutual communication, of the various spheres of human reflection with faith itself and with the language of the Church, in a world where individuals have become shielded from one another.[14] For this reason, in fact, it seems to many that one cannot be a Christian and an educated person at the same time, almost having to choose between being an inhabitant of one’s own time or nostalgic for a reality that once was. Helping to re-establish this communication, a true dialogue between cultures, is instead an inexhaustible source of richness for every community and should be a priority of our times. Paul VI already affirmed this: “The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time, just as it was of other times. Therefore every effort must be made to ensure a full evangelization of culture, or more correctly of cultures. They have to be regenerated by an encounter with the Gospel. But this encounter will not take place if the Gospel is not proclaimed.”[15]

In Continuity

Another important legacy of Aquinas’ thought is the awareness that we are children of a quest that did not begin with us: we are not the summit or the top of thought, but we move within the path of many, in a common effort that precedes us and accompanies us, and that will follow us. There is no absolute “I think”: there is an “I think together with you,” in which the “I” and the “you” refer to each other: the relationship establishes the identity of the person, and thus the thought.

We are carried by a tradition – in the best sense of the word – to which all generations have contributed. This is how Thomas expresses it, “The ancient philosophers slowly, and almost step by step, came to the knowledge of the truth.”[16]

In contrast, the modern world finds its measure in Descartes, who, at the beginning of his Discourse on Method, after narrating the confusion he found himself in after attending so many different schools, one day made the decision to take a new path.[17] From here he would begin a new way of relating to experience, starting with the subject. The sense of the uniqueness, individuality and unrepeatability of one’s experience, already exalted by Luther with the individual’s response to Scripture and the undervaluing of ecclesial mediation, would later triumph in the post-Hegelian historicist view, in the claim of each person to constitute at that moment the historical summit of thought, the most mature manifestation of the spirit. In the myth of history as progress lurks the presumption that it culminates in one’s own interpretation of it or, in the banal language of the schools, in the current state of affairs: history culminates in one’s own history.

Rather than adopt the arrogance of “I think,” we prefer to express our gratitude for those who have thought before us. We are not to repeat them, but to understand them and thus regenerate their insights in a world very different from theirs. This is a legacy that continues without end.


Reproduced with permission from La Civiltà Cattolica.


[1]. We do not actually know the date of Thomas’ birth, which can be placed between 1224 and 1226. He certainly died on March 7, 1274, on his way to the Second Council of Lyon. He was proclaimed a saint by Pope John XXII in 1323. Cf. J. A. Weisheipl, Tommaso d’Aquino. Vita, Pensiero, Opere, Milan, Jaca Book, 2016.

[2]. “Veritas ex diversitate personarum non variatur, unde, si aliquis veritatem loquitur, vinci non potest cum quocumque disputet” (Expositio in Iob, XIII, 19).

[3]. In the Summa in fact everything is treated as starting from God either because it is a matter of God himself, or because it is ordered to him as beginning and end. Cf. Summa Theologiae, q. 1, a. 7: “Omnia autem pertractantur in sacra doctrina sub ratione Dei vel quia sunt ipse Deus; vel quia habent ordinem ad Deum ut ad principium et finem.” Or again, “Omnia quae sunt a Deo ordinem habent ad invicem et ad ipsum Deum” (ibid., I, q. 47, a. 3). As is well known, Dante will take up this statement in Paradiso, I, 103-105, elevating it to the highest poetry: “All those things have order among themselves, and this is form which the universe makes like unto God.” This is why St. Ignatius of Loyola, who studied Thomas in Paris, could make “seeking and finding God in all things” the very meaning and end of his own spirituality.

[4]. “Pure,” that is, not mixed with other partisan considerations (political, intellectual, academically convenient); “peaceable,” because it is a peacemaker, an instrument of dialogue, aimed at seeking the true and the right in each person’s thinking, even if it is far from one’s own position; and then because it is not shouted, not wielded like a sword. Hence follow all its other characteristics.

[5].  M. Villey, La formazione del pensiero giuridico moderno, Milan, Jaca Book, 1986, 121. Here we are dealing in particular with law understood as a practical science, based on ends, and not theoretical, that is, built from principles.

[6]. Thomas here refers to St. Paul, who, writing to the Corinthians, states that “I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, because you were not yet capable of it” (1 Cor 3:2). Cf. Prologus of the Summa.

[7]. Antonio Gramsci’s thesis on this point is too well known to need to be explicitly quoted.

[8]. “The real founder of the University of Paris is Innocent III, and those who ensured its further development, directing and orienting it, are Innocent III’s successors, first of all Gregory IX. The University of Paris would have been established even without the intervention of the popes, but it is impossible to understand what ensured it a place among all medieval universities, if one does not take into account the active intervention and religious design clearly defined by the papacy” (E. Gilson, La filosofia nel Medioevo, Florence, la Nuova Italia, 1990, 473). The author continues: “It is an element of the universal Church in exactly the same capacity and absolutely with the same significance as the priesthood and the Empire” (ibid., 476).

[9]. “There is not a single one of the great works of St. Thomas, with the possible exception of the Summa contra Gentiles, that did not come directly out of his teaching or was not conceived expressly with a view to teaching” (E. Gilson, La filosofia nel Medioevoop. cit., 481).

[10]. “Locus ab auctoritate infirmissimus” (Summa Theol., I, q. 1, a. 8, ad 2).

[11]. “The Aristotelian system shows that it is possible to propose a comprehensive and organic view of the physical and metaphysical laws of the world completely apart from the contents of Revelation and traditional Christian thought” (M. Fumagalli Beonio Brocchieri – M. Parodi, Storia della filosofia medievale. Da Boezio a Wyclif, Rome-Bari, Laterza, 1996, 262). And Chenu states, “The Aristotelian universe itself appeared irreconcilable with the Christian conception of the world, of man, of God; no creation, an eternal world, abandoned to determinism, without a providential God knowing its contingencies, a man bound to matter, and like it mortal, a man whose moral perfection remains alien to religious values. Philosophy turned toward the earth, since through the negation of exemplary ideas, it has cut off every path to God and turned upon itself the light of reason” (M. D. Chenu, Introduzione allo studio di San Tommaso d’Aquino, Florence, Libreria Editrice Fiorentina, 1953).

[12]. In PL 211, 34.

[13]. As his booklet, De periculis novissimorum temporum, was actually titled, in which he stigmatizes the limited faith of his times, in which new creatures, Franciscans and Dominicans, are entering universities, as students and even occupying professorships, animated by an insane intellectual curiositas, living an unusual and scandalous religious lifestyle.

[14]. Cf. C. Taylor, L’età secolare, Milan, Feltrinelli, 2009, 44. The work of this Catholic author is an example of actualizing the method and perspective of St. Thomas, and it is what is generally felt to be lacking in contemporary times. Everyone tends to close himself in his own sphere, in his own university, in his own world, and this results in a general impoverishment of thought.

[15]. Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, no. 20.

[16]. Summa Theol., I, q. 44, a. 2: “Antiqui philosophi paulatim et quasi pedetentim intraverunt in cognitionem veritatis.” In this passage we find a true history of philosophy: from the pre-Socratics, who were firm on material cause, to Plato, who did not consider matter, to Aristotle, who identified substance as the fundamental category. In a note by St. Thomas, De substantiis separatis, on angels, his history of philosophy is enriched by considering its further developments, namely Arab philosophy, highlighting its acquisitions and aporias. Thomas sees himself as part of a human history entirely focused on the search for truth and not limited to christianitas alone. In this perspective, even errors are a beneficial part of a general effort.

[17]. Cf. S. T. Bonino, Être thomiste”, in B.-D. de La Soujeole – S. T. Bonino – H. Donneaud, Thomistes ou de l’actualité de Saint Thomas d’Aquin, Paris, Parole et Silence, 2003, 15.


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