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Thomas Aquinas, Saint

Thomas Aquinas, Saint (əkwīˈnəs) [Lat.,=from Aquino], 1225–74, Italian philosopher and theologian, Doctor of the Church, known as the Angelic Doctor, b. Rocca Secca (near Naples). He is the greatest figure of scholasticism, one of the principal saints of the Roman Catholic Church, and founder of the system declared by Pope Leo XIII (in the encyclical Aeterni Patris, 1879) to be the official Catholic philosophy.


St. Thomas came of the ruling family of Aquino, was educated as a child at Monte Cassino, and later studied at Naples. To his family's disappointment he entered (1244) the new Dominican order. In 1245 he began to study in Paris with Albertus Magnus, whose favorite pupil he became, and in 1248 he accompanied Albertus to Cologne. From there, Thomas went again (1252) to Paris, where he gained a great reputation and became professor of theology. He was leader of the friars in the controversy that occurred when the seculars sought to limit the friars' privileges at the university. After 1259 he spent several years in Italy as professor and adviser at the papal court.

His return to Paris (1269) was probably precipitated by the furor over Siger de Brabant and his Averroistic reading of Aristotle. The doctrinal struggle with Siger resulted in victory for Thomas and the triumph of his position. In 1272 he left Paris for Naples to organize a house of studies. Two years later when he and his companion, Brother Reginald, were at Fossanuova, on the way to the Council of Lyons, where he was to be a papal consultant, St. Thomas died.

He was canonized in 1323 and was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1567. His tomb is in the Basilica of St. Sernin at Toulouse. Feast: Mar. 7. In art St. Thomas is usually associated with a sacramental cup (representing his devotion to the sacrament) or a dove (representing the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) or depicted with a sun on his breast.

Philosophy and Work

St. Thomas's student nickname was the Dumb Ox, because he was slow in manner and quite stout. He was, however, a brilliant lecturer and a clear, sharp thinker, as his works show—not only in their rigid application of reason, but also in their Latin diction, which is admirably exact and simple. His spiritual character is manifest in the humility and charity of his conduct and the use to which he put his theories in his devotional works, notably in the Mass and office for the feast of Corpus Christi (June 21), which he wrote at Urban IV's request (1264). The four hymns of this Mass and office, Laude Sion Salvatorem, Pange Lingua, Sacris solemniis, and Verbum supernum (ending with O Salutaris Hostia), are classed among the greatest of Christian hymns.

No single work of St. Thomas can be said fully to reveal his philosophy. His works may be classified according to their form and purpose. The principal ones are Commentary in the Sentences (a series of public lectures; 1254–56), his earliest great work; seven quaestiones disputatae (public debates; 1256–72); philosophical commentaries on Aristotle's Physics, Metaphysics, De anima, Ethics, part of the De interpretatione, and the Posterior Analytics; treatises on many subjects, including the Summa contra Gentiles (1258–60); and, most important of all, Summa theologica (1267–73), an incomplete but systematic exposition of theology on philosophical principles. St. Thomas's philosophy is avowedly Aristotelian; the methods and distinctions of Aristotle are adapted to revelation.

The 13th cent. was a critical period in Christian thought, which was torn between the claims of the Averroists and Augustinians. Thomas opposed both schools, the Averroists led by Siger de Brabant, who would separate faith and truth absolutely, and the Augustinians, who would make truth a matter of faith. St. Thomas held that reason and faith constitute two harmonious realms in which the truths of faith complement those of reason; both are gifts of God, but reason has an autonomy of its own. Thus he vindicated Aristotle against those who saw him as the inspiration of Averroës and heresy.

The first principle of philosophy according to St. Thomas is the affirmation of being. From this he proceeded to a consideration of the manner in which the intellect achieves knowledge. For humans all knowledge begins by way of the senses, which are the medium through which he grasps the intelligible world, the universal. According to the position of Thomas, which is known as moderate realism, the form or the universal may be said to exist in three ways: in God, in things, and in the mind (see universals). He argues that it is by the knowledge of things that we come to know of God's existence. In the natural order what God is can be known only by analogy and negation.

Thomas's conviction that the existence of God can be discovered by reason is shown by his proofs of the existence of God. His metaphysics relies on the Aristotelian concepts of potency and act, matter and form, being and essence. A thing that requires completion by another is said to be in potency to that other; the realization of potency is called actuality. The universe is conceived of as a series of things arranged in an ascending order of potency, an act at once crowned and created by God, who alone is pure act. Two other pairs of metaphysical concepts—matter and form, essence and being—are special cases of potency and act. St. Thomas's moral philosophy is derived from these distinctions as well, since the opposite of being does not exist and since the good is identical with being, evil is but the absence of good.


For a long time Thomas was either ignored or misunderstood by even the greatest philosophers, but his teachings ultimately triumphed. That they are official in the Roman Catholic Church does not mean that Catholics may not adhere to other philosophies, notably the Scotist teachings, developed from the doctrines of Duns Scotus. St. Thomas's synthesis is now recognized as one of the greatest works of human thought. His wide-embracing philosophy can be applied to every realm of human life.

The terms New Thomism, neo-Thomism, and neo-scholasticism are used for a school of philosophy of the 20th cent. The Catholic leaders of this school were Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain, who sought to apply Thomistic principles to modern economic, political, and social conditions. Non-Catholics also have adapted Thomistic principles to modern life; a leader among them is Mortimer Adler.


His works have been widely translated, the more important ones in various versions. Volumes of selections of his works are also available. See G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (1933); E. Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (1956); M. D. Chenu, Toward Understanding St. Thomas (1964); J. A. Weisheipl, Friar Thomas D'Aquino (1974).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a Catholic school of philosophy based on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and representing a modern stage in the development of Thomism. The Vatican officially endorsed neo-Thomism in 1879. The school has adherents in Italy, Spain, France, Belgium, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the USA, and the countries of Latin America. Its most famous representatives are E. Gilson, J. Maritain, and A. D. Sertillanges (France); W. Brugger, A. Dempf, J. B. Lotz, M. Grab-mann, and J. de Vries (FRG); A. Dondeyne, L. de Raeymaeker, and F. van Steenberghen (Belgium); and U. A. Padovani, F. Olgiati, and C. Fabro (Italy).

Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni patris (Aug. 4, 1879), in which the principles for the revival of Thomism were defined, provided the decisive impetus for the development of neo-Thomism. During the first period of its development the efforts of its followers were directed chiefly at a systematic presentation of the doctrine. Centers for elaborating and propagandizing neo-Thomism were established, including the Higher Institute of Philosophy of the University of Louvain (Belgium), the Roman Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas (the Vatican), the Catholic Institute of Paris, and Catholic University in Milan. During the 1920’s and 1930’s the neo-Thomists focused on problems in metaphysics, epistemology, and natural philosophy. After World War II, neo-Thomism became one of the most influential currents in modern bourgeois philosophy, with many institutes, publishing houses, and journals at its disposal. New centers of neo-Thomism were established in the FRG, the USA, and Canada.

Neo-Thomism is strongly opposed to both materialism and subjective idealism. It lays claim to universalism—the uniting of faith and reason, speculation and empiricism, contemplativeness and practicality, and individualism and “collectivity” in an integral synthesis. This unity is established on a rigid dogma determined by the indisputability and obligatoriness of divine revelation for philosophy. Neo-Thomist philosophy is the “servant of theology.” Its chief task is considered to be the rational disclosure and justification of the truths of theology. Consequently, neo-Thomism views the world as a creation of god that is hierarchically divided into a series of levels whose interrelation is described on the basis of Aristotelian models, as modified by Thomas Aquinas.

In the Thomist classification of forms of knowledge, metaphysics is singled out and viewed as the “primary philosophy.” According to the neo-Thomists, its object and fundamental principle is pure being, or the fundamental act of being (esse), which is distinguished from being (ens). Metaphysics deals with infinite, transcendent, mentally comprehensible being, which is free of all the attributes of finite objects knowable through experience.

The neo-Thomists recognize that it is not possible to deduce any concrete concept of being and its laws from the idea of pure being and that metaphysics must close the gap between the finite and the infinite, between immanent and transcendent being, and, in the final analysis, between god and the world created by him. They try to find a way out of this contradiction by postulating “transcendental” concepts, such as “unity,” “truth,” “happiness,” and “beauty.” Like being, these concepts are assumed; unlike categorical definitions, they are not associated with experience. Another means of eliminating the basic contradiction in neo-Thomism is the doctrine of the “analogy of that which is” (or the “analogy of being”), which validates the possibility of knowing the existence of god by analogy from the existence of the world, despite the difference, in principle, between their natures.

The basis of neo-Thomist ontology is the doctrine of potency and act, according to which “emergence” of various objects or phenomena is interpreted as the realization, or actualization, of potencies. Insofar as potency is viewed as a purely abstract possibility, from the standpoint of neo-Thomism the existence of any finite object may only be understood as “participation” in the infinite existence of god, who is the actual source of all being.

The object of neo-Thomist natural philosophy is the corporeal world—sensory and changeable existence. The foundation of neo-Thomist natural philosophy is hylomorphism, a teaching on matter and form that dates to Aristotelianism. According to hylomorphism, matter is a purely passive element and acquires a specific appearance owing to nonmaterial form. Forms that actualize inert matter create the entire diversity of the material means and types of being, from the nonorganic world to the highest stage of natural being—man, whose nonmaterial and, therefore, immortal soul is his form and essence. According to neo-Thomism, the highest form (the form of forms) is not associated with matter, although it creates both “primary matter” and all forms in their diversity. This highest form is god.

Classifying being as natural, intentional, or ideal (logical) being, the neo-Thomists assert that substance, or universal being, has a rational nature and may be comprehended by reason. The meaning and function of human cognition is to discover the transcendent in that which is perceived by the senses. Unlike essence, existence is always individual and therefore cannot be an object of logical, rational cognition. Neo-Thomism asserts that scientific cognition cannot deal with questions of the “essence of being,” which are the province of philosophy and theology. Science comprehends “secondary causes” and discloses only the sequence and external links of events. The “finite causes” of all that exists relate to the supernatural order of being —that is, to god. In order to be real, human intellect must conform with divine intellect.

In neo-Thomism the individual is a stable, independent spiritual substance. However, the attributes of the individual—freedom, self-consciousness, the capacity to manifest itself in a spiritual act, and creative potency—receive their valuational confirmation only in conformity with god.

In neo-Thomism’s sociopolitical philosophy human society is understood as “natural society.” Its basic forms are the family, the community, the professions, the native land, and the state. Private property is equated with property in general—that is, with the appropriation by man of the objects of nature. The difference between classes is inferred from the division of labor and is represented chiefly by differences between the professions. According to neo-Thomism, the relationship of the individual to society may take any of three different forms, all of which are associated with social organization: individualism, collectivism, and solidarism. Rejecting individualism and collectivism as false extremes, neo-Thomism propagandizes solidarism, which is based on the principle of “Christian love for one’s neighbor.” In practice, this takes the form of the prophecy of “social peace” between classes.

The neo-Thomists actively oppose dialectical and historical materialism. They publish many “critical” works and engage in polemics against Marxist philosophy. Special handbooks for the “refutation” of dialectical materialism have been issued. Neo-Thomist “research” centers for the struggle against Marxist philosophy include the so-called Russian Institute in the Vatican and the Institute for East European Studies in Fribourg (Switzerland), which publishes the special quarterly journal Studies in Soviet Thought.

Since Vatican Council II (1962–65), which reorganized (“modernized”) the Catholic Church, neo-Thomism has been increasingly subject to the influence of phenomenology, existentialism, personalism, and the evolutionary spiritualistic teachings of Teilhard de Chardin (France).


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Transcendental Thomism and la nouvelle theologie, although the ultimate fruit of the Thomistic revival, were far from the intentions of the framers of neo-Thomism. Joseph Marechal, Karl Rahner, and Henri de Lubac were among those who, with a great deal of struggle, weaned the Church and the Jesuits from a conservative Scholasticism.
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In his review of Maritain's Three Reformers, Eliot observes "The influence of neo-Thomism has reached many persons who have probably never read a word of St.
In particular, Birzer advances the available scholarship on Dawson by placing the historian and critic in two broad fields of disagreement: 1) the Catholic neo-Augustinian reaction to the more prevalent Catholic neo-Thomism, a reaction typically associated with the French ressourcement of Maurice Blondel, Henri de Lubac, and Charles Peguy; and 2) conservative social criticism opposed to the Bloomsbury Group with its radical sexual experimentation, as well as to a liberalism that assumed the purity of mass capitalism and of the planed society.
thesis was written on William Blake, done in the framework of neo-Thomism. Jacques Maritain's Art and Scholasticism informed Merton to think in big patterns even then.
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