Thomas Aquinas was born in either 1224 or 1225 at the family castle at Roccasecca in what was then the county of Aquino in the general vicinity of Naples in Southern Italy. At that point in history, this area of Southern Italy had fallen under the political control of the Holy Roman Empire. Thomas’ father, Landolfo, was a knight in the service of Emperor Frederick II. His mother was Dame Theodora. He was the youngest of four sons. He had five sisters. When Thomas was five or six he was brought to the Abbey of Monte Cassino, as a child oblate, with the understanding, that he would eventually take vows as a monk. Because of his family’s position, there seems to have been the expectation that Thomas would, in time, become the abbot, as many monasteries chose their abbots from noble families. Having a family member in such a prominent position was also advantageous to the family.

In 1239, because of disruptions within the vicinity of the monastery, caused by a new outbreak in armed hostilities between the Pope and the Emperor, the Abbot suggested to Landolfo that Thomas should continue his education in Naples. He began his studies of the liberal arts and philosophy in the University established there by Frederick II. One of his teachers was Master Peter of Ireland whose writings exhibit knowledge of Aristotle.[1] Knowledge of Aristotle was not common at the time because Aristotle’s works and those of his commentators were only slowly being translated into Latin in the 12th and 13th centuries.

In Naples, Thomas encountered the Dominicans. They had been in Naples since 1231, but because of restrictions against them by the Emperor due to their allegiance to the pope, only two remained in the city. Thomas appears to have taken the Dominican habit in April, 1244, when he was nineteen or twenty. The Constitutions at that time proposed a six month period before making profession but also allowed for the vows to be taken upon entrance. We don’t know how this was applied in Thomas’ case.

Because of concerns about his family’s reaction, the friars sent Thomas away from Naples in the company of the Master of the Order, John the Teuton, who was on his way to a Dominican general chapter at Bologna. Theodora, somehow alerted to the situation, came to Naples to retrieve her son. Not finding Thomas, she sent word to his brothers, who were in the service of the Emperor. Soldiers intercepted the friars early in May. They attempted to remove the habit from Thomas but he resisted. He was brought back to the castle at Roccasecca and kept under virtual house arrest. During the course of the next year, he was able, among other things, to read the entire Bible.

Possibly the pope’s excommunication of Frederick II, caused Aquinas’ family to change their allegiance, and very likely became of Thomas’ resolve to remain a Dominican, the family delivered him to the priory in Naples in the summer of 1245. Thomas seems to have maintained a good relationship with his family throughout his life and would later spend time with his family when he was near Naples, even serving as executor of his brother-in-law’s will.

Thomas studied at the University of Paris between 1245 and 1248 which, at that time, was the theological center of Europe. Thomas appears to have served as an assistant to Albert the Great, a Dominican who held a chair of theology at the University. In 1248, he went with Albert to Cologne where Albert was establishing a studium generale, that is a center of studies for the Dominicans in Germany.

 At that time, there were three levels of lecturers, the biblical bachelor who commented on the Scriptures, then the bachelor of the Sentences who commented on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, and the highest level, the Magister in Sacra Pagina (Master in the Sacred Page). Returning to Paris, Thomas served as a biblical bachelor, whose responsibility was to give “cursory” or briefer lectures on the Scriptures. During this period, he composed commentaries on most of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Lamentations.

 In 1251, John the Teuton, the Master of the Order, asked Albert to suggest a candidate to assume one of the two teaching positions, chairs of theology, which the Dominicans had at the University of Paris. One of these chairs of theology was customarily held by a member of the Province of France and the other by a friar from outside France. At first, the Master was reluctant to accept Albert’s suggestion that he appoint Thomas, probably because of Thomas’ young age. However, when the Master received the same recommendation from Cardinal Hugh of Saint-Cher, a Dominican who had previously held the university chair in Paris, John sent Thomas, in 1252, to take the position as Bachelor of the Sentences.

The Sentences (Sententiarum Libri Quatuor) was a collection of the opinions of the Fathers of the Church on theological questions put together by Peter Lombard (c.1100-1160) between 1155 and 1158. It was the practice for those incipient professors who had completed their service commenting on the Scriptures, to comment on Lombard’s text. This practice continued, in some places, until the sixteenth century. It was during this period in Paris that Thomas composed the bulk of his commentary on the Sentences, the Scriptum super libros Sententiarum.

Thomas had received from Albert a deep respect for Aristotle (384-322 BC), as well as Aristotle’s commentators, the Arab philosophers, Avicenna (980-1037) and Averroës[2] (1126-1198), and the Jewish scholar, Moses Maimonedes[3] (1135-1204). Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., notes that there are approximately 2000 references to Aristotle in Thomas’ commentary on the Sentences, around 1000 to Augustine, around 500 to Pseudo-Dionysius, about 280 to Gregory the Great, and about 240 for John Damascene (d. after 749).[4] Torrell remarks on Thomas’ ability to use diverse sources: “He knew how to take the good where he found it; for the rest, the manner in which he uses his preferred authors does not leave them intact: the inspiration of his own synthesis profoundly transformed these borrowed elements.”[5]

The De Fide Orthodoxa, John Damascene’s (St. John of Damascus) attempt to bring together the major beliefs of the faith, was known to Thomas through a Latin translation done by Richard Burgundio of Pisa around 1150. Torrell reflects on Thomas’ use of John Damascene; “He [John Damascene] is a kind of crossroads for the Fathers of the East. Through him Thomas finds himself reconnected to that whole tradition. And Thomas was probably more attentive to that tradition than were any of the theologians of his time (the Catena Aurea is an eloquent testimony to that).”[6]

Before the introduction of Aristotle into Western Europe, the prevailing philosophical thought inclined towards various Platonic philosophies. Theology relied on faith in what had been transmitted through the Scriptures and the authorities. The contribution of Aristotle was his emphasis on the body-soul unity of the human being, taking seriously the body and the emotions as true elements of human life. Such an approach could have many ramifications because the physical and the emotional aspects had been disregarded by some authors as impediments to true spirituality.

When the University Faculty at Paris attempted to limit the chairs of theology available to the friars,[7] Pope Alexander IV intervened. At the Pope’s instigation, Thomas was invited to give his inaugural lecture in the Spring of 1256. Thomas had not reached the required age of thirty-five, being thirty-one or thirty-two. He experienced great hesitation over proceeding with this step, but later spoke of a dream or vision in which an aged Dominican supplied him with the verse of Scripture on which to comment.

From 1256 to 1259, he served as the Magister in Sacra Pagina (Master in the Sacred Page) at the University in Paris. There were three requirements for the Magister. The first responsibility was legere (to read), that is to comment on the Bible. During his life, Thomas wrote commentaries on slightly more than a half of the New Testament as well as several books of the Old. The second responsibility was disputare, to conduct an active teaching discussion with objections and responses on a given theme. The third duty was praedicare (to preach). The Magister was to give sermons for the University. Twenty of Thomas’ university homilies are extant.

Jean-Pierre Torrell considers that Thomas’ earlier writings are “often invaluable in clarifying his mature work,” although they are little known. Torrell thinks that Thomas explored certain points more fully and more explicitly in his earlier works. Torrell believes that this follows a familiar pattern where writers assume that their readers are familiar with their earlier works.[8]

During the course of this stay in Paris, the troubles that had been brewing between the secular clergy, who had held the posts of masters of theology, and the new arrivals, the Mendicants, came to a head. Before the arrival of the friars, three canons from the Cathedral of Notre Dame held chairs on the faculty and the remaining five chairs were held by secular clergy but by Thomas’ time, the number of chairs had been extended to twelve. Dominic had obtained the services of John of St. Albans, an English secular master, to teach the Dominicans.

In September, 1229, Roland of Cremona became the first Dominican to accept a chair at the University in Paris, during a strike of the secular masters. A second one was obtained in 1230, when John of Saint-Giles, who already held a chair, entered the Order. These chairs were passed down in the Order. The Englishman, Alexander of Hales, who was already a master, entered the Franciscans in 1236, giving the Franciscans a chair as well.

When the Franciscans tried to obtain a chair for St. Bonaventure, the secular clergy strongly opposed the possibility of being outnumbered by the friars and canons. William of Saint-Amour composed a book which insisted that religious should remain in monasteries doing manual labor. During a homily on Palm Sunday, 1259, Thomas was interrupted by an individual attempting to promote Saint-Amour’s book to the congregation. In response to this controversy, Thomas composed his works defending the Mendicant vocation. Eventually, the Pope intervened on the part of the Mendicants.

In June, 1259, the General Chapter, appointed a committee of five friars, including Thomas and Albert, to devise a program of study for the Order, which would include the study of philosophy. Thomas seems to have been located in Italy between 1259 and 1261. During this time, he completed his theological work that he began in his last year in Paris, the Summa Contra Gentiles, which is considered his second most important writing. Torrell emphasizes the importance of this earlier work: “In this first great work of his maturity, Thomas was not driven by the (perhaps excessive) desire to be concise that characterizes the Summa Theologiae. We therefore often find in the earlier Summa fuller explanations that help us to follow the text more easily.”[9]

Between 1261 and 1265, he served as the lector at the priory at Orvieto, in Italy, teaching Dominicans. There he composed his commentary on Job. Pope Urban IV resided at Orvieto between 1261-1264. In 1264, Pope Urban instituted the feast of Corpus Christi for the entire Church. Thomas seems to have composed an Office for the feast, which is no longer used.

He is generally acknowledged to be the author of three Eucharistic hymns, Adoro Te, probably written in Orvieto, as well as Pange Lingua, which is currently used during the Holy Thursday procession, the last two verses are sung at Benediction, Tantum Ergo, and the sequence for this feast, Lauda Sion Salvatorem.

Pope Urban IV asked Thomas to compose the Catena Aurea, a verse by verse commentary on the Gospels, derived from the comments of the Fathers of the Church. In his Catena aurea, Thomas makes references to fifty-seven Eastern writers and only twenty-two Latin ones, demonstrating Thomas’ exposure even to Eastern Fathers.[10]

Thomas began his commentary on Matthew while in Orvieto. Torrell calls attention to Thomas’ habit of seeking the primary sources: “Thomas, along with Albert, his master, from whom he no doubt learned this habit, belonged to that rare category of authors who are not content with florilegia (the anthologies of quotations that were available to the medievals) and frequently have recourse to the sources.”[11] Torrell notes Thomas’ concern to find the intentio auctoris, the intention of the author, in such writings.[12]

In 1265, Thomas was sent by the Roman provincial chapter to Rome to found a studium, which seems to actually be a studium personnale, in other words, one centered on his teaching, possibly at Santa Sabina. During Thomas’ stay in Rome, he wrote extensively. Thomas had apparently been concerned about the lack of understanding of dogmatic theology that he had encountered among the Dominicans, while he served as the lector in Orvieto. While at Rome, he seems to have attempted a revision of his commentary on the Sentences but decided to begin a new comprehensive work of theology, which was his greatest work, the Summa Theologiae. He worked on this during his last seven  years. The Prima Pars was completed before he left Rome in September, 1268.

Thomas taught at the university in Paris between 1268-1272, still writing a number of serious works, some of which concerned disputed issues. While at Paris, he completed the Prima Secundae in 1271 and the Secunda Secundae between 1271 and 1272.

Some of Thomas’ works were in response to requests of others, especially Dominicans. Torrell observes that twenty-six of Thomas ninety writings were written because of requests. Torrell notes: “Despite heavy teaching and writing responsibilities, Thomas never neglected these demands of intellectual charity, and in this lies one of the elements of his sanctity. For anyone seeking the means he adopted, the secret is not to be found in austerities or in special devotions, exterior to his intellectual life, but in the very concrete exercise of his intellect.”[13]

An interesting note on Thomas’ usual (but not perpetual) patience in controversy concerns a dispute with the Franciscan, John Pecham. We are told: “Bartholomew of Capua learned from several Dominicans that John and Thomas confronted each other in a dispute at Paris and that ‘dictus frater Iohannes exasperaret eundem fratrem Thomas verbis ampullosis et tumidis, nunquam tamen ipse frater Thomas restrinxit verbum humilitatis sed semper cum dulcedine et humilitate respondit.'”[14]

While in Paris, Thomas completed his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. He worked on his commentary on the Gospel of John probably between 1270 and 1272. Torrell describes this commentary as “The theological work par excellence by Saint Thomas”[15] and states that it “offers some of the most developed examples of his theological exegesis.”[16]

Among the other writings of Thomas are a number of Quodlibets, lectures that were given by the masters in Advent or in Lent addressing topics raised at will by those attending. Torrell offers us an interesting insight in Thomas’ belief in the seriousness of the vocation of theologians from an Easter Quodlibet of 1269:

There are those whom we can compare to manual laborers who are especially employed in the care of souls, for example, in administering the sacraments and in other similar tasks. But those who are compared to the architects here are the bishops who direct the task of the earlier group and arrange the way in which they ought to accomplish their office; that is why, furthermore we call them ‘bishops,’ which is to say ‘superintendents.’ Similarly, the doctors in theology are also architects, who research and teach how others ought to work toward the salvation of souls. Speaking absolutely, it is better to teach sacra doctrina – and more meritorious, if this is done with a good intention – than to consecrate oneself to a particular care of this or that individual. This is why the apostle says of himself: Christ has sent me not to baptize but to preach (1 Corinthians 1:17), although to baptize is the work most fitting for the salvation of souls. Saint Paul also says: Recommend the faithful who are capable of it to instruct others in their turn (2 Tim. 2:2). Reason itself demonstrates that it is more profitable to instruct in the knowledge of salvation those who can make progress in it, both for themselves and for others, than to instruct the simple who can profit only for themselves. However, in case of imminent necessity, bishops and doctors ought to leave their proper office to dedicate themselves to the salvation of particular souls.[17]


During this stay in Paris, Thomas produced commentaries on Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, and Ethics. Thomas employed, at times, as many as three or four secretaries, making copies of texts he would need and also taking dictation. Torrell reports from the account of Evan Garvit that: “after dictating to him and to two other secretaries that he [Thomas] had, sitting to rest for a bit, he fell asleep and continued dictating even while sleeping.”[18]

Foremost among Thomas’ secretaries was Reginald of Piperno, called his socius continuus, who seems to have assisted him with most of his writing and was with him at his death. Those who have examined Thomas’ original compositions report that his handwriting is difficult to decipher, to which the regular secretaries must have become accustomed. One assistant, William of Moerbeke, a Flemish Dominican, searched out or created translations into Latin of the  Greek Fathers or Aristotle.

The Roman Province requested that Thomas organize a studium generale for their province. Thomas returned to Naples. Thomas left Paris in 1272, when the university went on strike. During this period, Thomas worked on his commentary on the Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Psalms 1-54. Thomas also composed the part of the Tertia Pars that dealt with the Life of Jesus. Torrell offers us the description given by Bartholomew of Capua of Thomas’ day:

Every day, Friar Thomas celebrated Mass early in the morning in the chapel of Saint Nicholas. Another priest immediately followed him, who celebrated Mass in turn. After hearing it, [Thomas] took off his [priestly] vestments, and immediately gave his course. That done, he began writing and dictating to several secretaries. After that, he ate, returned to his room where he attended to divine things until rest time. After rest, he began again to write, and it was thus that he ordered his whole life to God.[19]

Thomas frequently was lost in thought, even in public gatherings. To bring him back out of his absorption, his friends would pull strongly on his cape. During Mass on Passion Sunday, 1273, his ecstasy was so prolonged that he had to be brought out of it by those present.

Sometime around December 6, 1273, Thomas had some experience saying Mass. After this event, he told Reginald that he could not continue writing: “Everything I have written seems to me as straw in comparison with what I have seen.”[20]

Thomas was working on the Tertia Pars when he ceased writing after his experience on December 6, 1273, while in Naples. In the fourteenth century, others sought to complete his work by adding a Supplementum, which collected his opinions on the unfinished questions chiefly from his earlier work, the Scriptum super Sententias, the commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences.

As his body became weaker, Thomas was sent to the home of his sister, Theodora, to rest and then returned to the priory. At the end of January or the beginning of February, 1274, Thomas set off with Reginald for the council that Gregory X had called at Lyons. On the way, Thomas walked into a fallen tree and banged his head against a branch. Thomas stopped to rest at the castle of his niece, Francesca. When the doctor asked if there was anything he would like to eat, Thomas asked for herring.

After a few days, Thomas was brought by horse to the Cistercian abbey at Fossanova. After confessing to Reginald, and receiving viaticum, Thomas made a profession of faith in the Eucharist. The early biographers recount these words:

I receive You, price of my soul’s redemption, I receive You, viaticum of my pilgrimage, for love of whom I have studied, watched, labored; I have preached You, I have taught You; never have I ever said anything against You, and if I have done so it is through ignorance and I do not grow stubborn in my error; if I have taught ill of the sacrament or the others, I submit it to the judgment of the Holy Roman Church, in obedience to which I leave now this life.[21]

Having received communion, Thomas died on Wednesday, March 7, 1274. Thomas was first buried at the monastery at Fossanova and the monks refused to allow his body to be moved. In 1369, at the order of Urban V, his body was given to the Dominicans in Toulouse and is presently in the church of the Jacobins. (The Dominicans were called Jacobins in France because their first house in Paris was St. Jacques.)

Thomas’ work was criticized by those who were suspicious of the employment of reason as a tool in theology in the manner which characterized those who favored the Aristotelian philosophy. Such criticisms seemed to have brought an end to Thomas’ influence when, on March 7, 1277, Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris, issued a condemnation of propositions, which included some held by Thomas. On March 18 of the same year, the Dominican archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Kilwardby, also condemned some of Thomas’ propositions without naming him. Some were disturbed that, at times, Thomas sided with a pagan philosopher, Aristotle, over Augustine or other Fathers. Some criticized Thomas’ appeals to reason rather than resolving all matters by faith.

The Dominicans reacted by defending Thomas. At the 1286 General Chapter, the Order insisted that, while every one did not have to agree with all of Thomas’ teaching, they had to defend it as an acceptable theological opinion. The 1309 General Chapter made Thomas’ teaching official for the Order.

Thomas was canonized at Avignon on July 18, 1323. There is a story, seemingly apocryphal but insightful nevertheless, that when Pope John XXII was asked about Thomas’ miracles, he replied that every answer that Thomas gave was a miracle.[22] The condemnation of his propositions was revoked by the Bishop of Paris on February 14, 1325.

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.,  December 15, 2017.

              [1] Aristotle (384-322 BC) from Stageira in Thrace had studied under Plato in Athens. After Plato’s death, he became the tutor to Alexander the Great. Later he returned to Athens, and inaugurated the Peripatetic school of philosophy.

              [2] Averroës or Mahommed Ibn Roschd was an Arabian philosopher and astronomer born in Cordova in 1126. His commentary on Aristotle’s writings was one of the sources of medieval knowledge of Aristotle before the original works of Aristotle were translated into Latin from Greek.

              [3] Maimonedes (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), a Jewish philosopher, was born in Cordova and worked in Cairo.

                  [4] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 41.

              [5] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 129.

[6] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 83.

[7] The Franciscans and Dominicans were called mendicant because they begged for their support.

[8] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 58.

[9] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 31.

[10] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 127.

              [11] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 140.

              [12] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 238.

              [13] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 49-50.

              [14] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 184, note 20.

              [15] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 200.

[16] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2003), 121.

              [17] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 209-210.

              [18] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 242.

              [19] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 244.

              [20] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 289.

              [21] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 293.

              [22] Simon Tugwell, O.P., Albert and Thomas (New York: Paulist, 1988), 259.