Thomas Aquinas Compiles the Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Thomas Aquinas compiled the theological treatise Summa Theologica, creating a work that attempted to combine secular and divine knowledge into one orderly rational system.

Summary of Event

Thomas Aquinas was born near Monte Cassino, where his parents placed him in the famous Benedictine monastery at the age of five. He was of heavy proportions with a large head, broad face, and blond hair. Although his friends called him “the great dumb ox of Sicily,” history was to know him as Doctor Angelicus. [kw]Thomas Aquinas Compiles the Summa Theologica (c. 1265-1273) [kw]Aquinas Compiles the Summa Theologica, Thomas (c. 1265-1273) [kw]Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas Compiles the (c. 1265-1273) Summa Theologica (Thomas Aquinas) Thomas Aquinas France;c. 1265-1273: Thomas Aquinas Compiles the Summa Theologica[2470] Italy;c. 1265-1273: Thomas Aquinas Compiles the Summa Theologica[2470] Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1265-1273: Thomas Aquinas Compiles the Summa Theologica[2470] ; literature; Literature;c. 1265-1273: Thomas Aquinas Compiles the Summa Theologica[2470] Philosophy;c. 1265-1273: Thomas Aquinas Compiles the Summa Theologica[2470] Religion;c. 1265-1273: Thomas Aquinas Compiles the Summa Theologica[2470] Thomas Aquinas Albert the Great William of Moerbeke Raymond of Peñafort Reginald of Piperno Tempier, Étienne

His career throughout was a distinguished one. He studied art and philosophy at the University of Naples. At the age of twenty-five, he began what could be called graduate studies at the University of Paris. He was master of theology at Paris from 1256 to 1259 and again from 1269 to 1272, adviser to Pope Urban IV and Pope Clement IV as well as to Louis IX of France, active participant in the business of his Dominican order, founder of a study house in Rome, popular preacher and debater, reorganizer of the University of Naples, and archbishop-designate of Naples, an office he declined. Death came while he was traveling to the Council of Lyons at the summons of Pope Gregory IX.

His Summa theologiae (c. 1265-1273; Summa Theologica, 1911-1921), an attempt to bring all knowledge, both secular and divine, into one orderly rational system, represents one of the most ambitious intellectual programs ever undertaken by a theologian. Aquinas deals with hundreds of theological problems, providing answers that are simultaneously consistent with Aristotelian and Platonic philosophies, medieval Christian theology, and theoretical and commonsense reasoning. The word summa in the thirteenth century had a technical connotation: a teaching tool for a curriculum of study in a specific scientific field. A summa was concise and abridged, ready to be used by the teacher and the students. Aquinas’s work, of course, was facilitated by earlier scholarship, since virtually all revelationary religions that came into contact with Hellenism realized that sooner or later they must harmonize, in a monumental way, their deposit of faith with the dictates of reason. Philo and Moses Maimonides undertook the task for the Jewish tradition, Averroës for the Muslim. Within the Christian orbit, Aquinas was heir to a thousand years of scholarship that had attempted to forge a synthesis between faith and reason, revelation and observation.

Summa Theologica was created in a milieu of scholastic upheaval and in the midst of rediscovery of Aristotle Aristotle . The university debate about Aristotle’s inclusion in Christian theology was at a peak. Aquinas, according to his own writings, was one of the leaders of these debates in the university and theological communities in Paris.

Saint Thomas Aquinas.

(Library of Congress)

The teaching of Saint Augustine Augustine, Saint had dominated Western thought for more than eight hundred years, and Augustinian thought insisted that in their search for truth, humans must depend on inner ideas rather than sensory experience. Aristotle had said the opposite, and it was Aristotle’s insistence on empirical knowledge and the value of sense experience that caused the dichotomy between the two schools of thought. In Aquinas’s time, the works of Aristotle were beginning to appear in translations accompanied by the commentaries of Arabian scholars, and French philosophers were asserting that philosophy was independent of revelation. The question was whether Aristotle could be adequately tamed to Christian theology in order to prevent weakening of the faith and even heresy.

In learning about such matters, Aquinas was greatly indebted to his famous teacher at Paris and Cologne, the eminent Albert the Great (Albertus Magnus) Albertus Magnus . The contents of books of “sentences” commenting on the Scriptures and the church fathers were so influential in calling attention to the need for theological scholarship that Aquinas himself responded by first writing a Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard Lombard, Peter . The new Latin translations of Aristotle prepared by William of Moerbeke William of Moerbeke and the early thirteenth century translation of Averroës Averroës were influential in Aquinas’s conception and execution of his great work.

When Aquinas was teaching in Italy, the noted Spanish Dominican canonist Raymond of Peñafort Raymond of Peñafort urged him to write a new kind of summa as a guide for Dominican missionaries in Spain. This Summan contra Gentiles was directed in great measure against the radical Christian Averroists and Muslim intellectuals. According to Aquinas’s fellow student Bartholomew of Lucca, the plan of the great Summa theologiae was conceived at Rome in 1265. Ninety-three major questions had been answered when death came to Aquinas, and the work was completed by his confessor and companion Reginald of Piperno Reginald of Piperno , who extracted material from Aquinas’s earlier work on Lombard’s Sententiarum libri IV (1148-1151; The Books of Opinions of Peter Lombard, 1970; better known as Sentences) Sentences (Lombard) , mainly from book four.

Recognizing in an enlightened way the desirability of harmonizing Aristotle and Arabic science with Christian revelation (instead of barring non-Christian scholarship as the Obscurantists insisted on doing), the Summa Theologica sets out to establish once and for all a compatibility between divine and human knowledge, theology and philosophy, faith and reason, and, in a sense, Plato and Aristotle. It is this kind of successful synthesis that made Aquinas indispensable to Christian theology Christianity;philosophy and . To cope with questions in which reason can make little progress, such as the nature of the Divine Being or Christ as the mediator of transcendency and love, Aquinas included a third epistemological category by which such knowledge was possible through a mix of reason and revelation.

He made his reputation where even Albert the Great had failed. Aquinas insisted that the truths of faith and those of sense experience are compatible and complementary; some truths, such as the mystery of the Incarnation, can be known only through revelation, while others, such as knowledge of the composition of earthly things, can be known only through sense experience. Moreover, Aquinas took a further step forward: Some truths require both revelation and sense experience for their perception, and among such truths he included human awareness of God. Humans become aware of God through knowledge of the material world around them, but in order to comprehend the highest truths about God one needs revelation as well. Aquinas’s realism placed the universals firmly in the human mind, in contrast to the extreme realists who insisted that such universals existed independently of the human mind. The argument actually involved Platonism more than Aristotelianism. In this sense he was more like Augustine, but he used Platonic notions only when Aristotelian concepts failed; namely, he used Plato’s ideas of emanation and return, and efficient and final cause.

Aquinas was concerned to show through dialectic that all revealed knowledge could be demonstrated as being not contrary to reason even if every item could not be logically proven. He relied heavily on three Aristotelian hypotheses: that since cognition starts with sense perception, then argumentation must begin with facts about the natural world; that a distinction must be made between substance and accident; and that a polarity exists between potency and action.

At first blush, Summa Theologica seems like a cut-and-paste project covering a collage of quasi-related topics. On closer scrutiny, however, one finds that the work is a meticulously unified and masterfully argued line of analogic reasoning, leading to a unified system of theological metaphysics. The work is in three parts, and thirty-eight sections supply answers to some 630 theological questions by quoting authorities, notably Augustine and Aristotle, and by applying impeccable logic. In the process, Aquinas answers some ten thousand objections to his own conclusions.


Summa Theologica remains the greatest exposition of Christian ethics. It represents the apex of the synthesis between classical and Christian learning that had been going on since the second century. By distinguishing between philosophy and theology, it facilitated the development of Western philosophy as a distinct discipline. There was opposition to his work from Franciscans and some Dominicans; and it was condemned in 1277 by Étienne Tempier Tempier, Étienne , bishop of Paris and chancellor of the university. Despite such detraction, Thomas Aquinas was canonized in 1328 and declared a doctor of the Church in 1567. Pope Leo XIII made Thomism the basis for instruction in all Roman Catholic schools, and Pius XII affirmed in an encyclical that Thomist philosophy should be regarded as the surest guide to Catholic doctrine; all departure from it should be condemned. The Roman Catholic Church, at the urging of Belgian theologians, among others, has now tended to tone down the bold rationalism of Aquinas.

The monumental work of the Summa Theologica shook the thirteenth century scholastic and theological worlds, as Karl Marx’s writings shook political and moral sensibilities and institutions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The success of Aquinas’s work is attributed to his pedagogical skill rather than to his sainthood, mysticism, or complex philosophy. A closer scrutiny of his writing reveals a man of unwavering faith, with a compassionate soul and fatherly warmth, always aware of his limitations and always in search of God.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyle, Leonard. The Setting of the “Summa Theologiae” of Saint Thomas. Toronto, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1982. A brief and thorough intellectual history of the Summa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eschmann, Ignatius Theodore. The Ethics of Saint Thomas Aquinas: Two Courses. Edited by Edward A. Synan. Toronto, Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1997. A treatment of the ethical system put forward by Aquinas in the Summa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilson, Etienne. The History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages. New York: Random House, 1955. This survey of the whole of medieval Christian philosophy puts Thomism in its historical context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kenny, Anthony. Aquinas. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1980. The author, an eminent Oxford philosopher, gives a lucid, brief, and accessible account of Aquinas’s theological philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knasas, John, ed. Thomas Papers. Vol. 6. Houston, Tex.: Center of Thomist Studies, 1994. A challenging book, discussing the evolution of Aquinas’s philosophy in various forms. Especially relevant is the section titled “Neo-Thomism, and Christian Philosophy.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, C. F. J. Thomas Aquinas: God and Explanations. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. An analysis of the relationship between science, reason, and divinity in Aquinas’s thought.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martin, Christopher, ed. The Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas: Introductory Reading. London: Routledge, 1988. This work contains a representative sampling of all of Aquinas’s important works, including an ample selection of his Summa, with excellent introductions of each selection.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nichols, Aidan. Discovering Aquinas: An Introduction to His Life, Work, and Influence. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2003. An introduction to Aquinas’s thought and its historical impact.

Categories: History