Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a Dominican brother, was not just a Christian saint and thinker but one of the chief philosophers of the West. He explained Christianity in terms of Aristotle, making Aristotle “the Philosopher” in the West till the time of Galileo over 300 years later.
By making Christianity and Greek science into one system, Aquinas laid the groundwork for the rise of Western science.
What Aquinas did was a rare thing. The Muslims failed to make peace with Aristotle and rational thought. When they reached this turn in the road they concluded that God is beyond reason or even contrary to reason. And even in the West today there is no peace between religion and science.
Aquinas’s system of thought is known as Thomism or scholasticism and his followers were called schoolmen in English. It was the last time all of Western thought fell under one system.
Dante’s “Divine Comedy” is based on his thought. Even Shakespeare makes more sense once you know Thomism.
In the 1600s Aristotle’s physics was proved wrong and scholasticism fell, even though it had little to do with his physics. It lives on in certain Catholic circles.
In Aquinas’s lifetime the Church had not yet made its peace with Aristotle and though this was to happen through the system of Aquinas, it was not accepted till after his death.
The West had known about Aristotle’s books on logic all along. They had been translated into Latin by Boethius long ago. But in the late 1000s Aristotle’s science burst upon the West from Arab Spain.
Aquinas was friends with William of Moerbeke, a fellow Dominican who was translating Aristotle not from Arabic but from the original Greek.
Some were against Aristotle because he seemed to disprove Christianity, while others were for him just because he did. The genius of Aquinas was to use Aristotle to explain Christianity!
The pope asked Aquinas to write a commentary on Aristotle. He did, but his master work was not that but his “Summa Theologica.”
The Summa explains the nature of God, man, angels, Creation, Judgement Day, Christian virtues and the sacraments – all in terms of Aristotle’s philosophy, all in simple, clear Latin.
The Summa takes the form of a series of questions. For each question Aquinas looks at reasons for and against the Church’s answer. He uses Aristotle’s thinking to show how the Church is right.
The nature of truth: Aristotle said that we know the truth through facts and reason. Aquinas agreed but added one more thing: faith. Facts and reason help us get to through this world, but God needs to reveal to us other truths to help us get to heaven.
Faith and reason both come from God so both are true. Faith does not oppose reason but stands above it. God does not waste his time revealing what is plain or easy to prove, but what is beyond the power of our reason.