St. Thomas Aquinas: Philosophy and Religion

Thomas Aquinas was born around 1225 in Lombardy, Italy, to the Countess of Teano. When he was just five years old, Aquinas was sent to the monastery Montecassino to study with Benedictine monks. He would remain there until the age of thirteen, when, due to great political unrest, Montecassino became a battle site and he was forced to leave.

Aquinas was then transferred to Naples, where he studied at a Benedictine house that was affiliated with the University of Naples. There, he spent the next five years learning about the work of Aristotle and became very interested in contemporary monastic orders. In particular, Aquinas became drawn to the idea of living a life of spiritual service, as opposed to the more traditional and sheltered lifestyle he was accustomed to seeing with the monks at Montecassino.

Thomas Aquinas began to attend the University of Naples around 1239. By 1243, he had joined an order of Dominican monks in secret, and received the habit in 1244. When his family learned of this, they kidnapped him, held him captive for a year, and tried to make him see the error of his ways. Their attempt did not work, however, and when he was released in 1245, Aquinas returned to the Dominican order. Between 1245 and 1252, Aquinas studied with the Dominicans in Naples, Paris, Cologne (where he was ordained in 1950), and eventually returned to Paris to teach theology at the University of Paris.

At a time when the Catholic Church had an overwhelming amount of power and people struggled with the notion of having philosophy and religion coexist, Thomas Aquinas brought faith and reasoning together. He believed that knowledge, whether obtained through nature or through religious studies, all came from God and could work together.

In the second part of Summa Theologiae, Aquinas creates a system of ethics based on the work of Aristotle. Like Aristotle, Aquinas believed that a good life is described by attempting to reach the highest end. And like Aristotle, Aquinas also spoke of virtue. To Aquinas, there were cardinal virtues that all other forms of virtue came from. These were justice, prudence, courage, and temperance.

While these cardinal virtues are a template for a moral life, according to Aquinas, they are not enough for one to reach true fulfillment. While Aristotle believed that the highest end was happiness and that the way to achieve this was through virtue, Aquinas believed the highest end was eternal blessedness, which was achieved by a union with God in the afterlife. It is by living through these cardinal virtues that one moves toward true fulfillment.

Aquinas made a distinction between an eternal happiness that could only be reached in the afterlife, and an imperfect happiness that could be reached in this life. Because eternal happiness is a union with God, there is only an imperfect happiness in this life since we can never know everything there is to know about God in this life.

Thomas Aquinas had an incredible impact on Western philosophy. During his lifetime, the church was extremely influenced by the works of Plato and had dismissed the importance of Aristotle.

Aquinas, however, came to realize just how important Aristotle was and incorporated Aristotle’s work into Catholic orthodoxy, forever changing the shape of Western philosophy. In 1879, the teachings of Thomas Aquinas became incorporated into official church doctrine by Pope Leo XIII.