The Dazzling ’dumb Ox’
SHORTLY AFTER THOMAS AQUINAS DIED, on March 7, 1274, miracles began to occur near his body. The monks of the Cistercian abbey at Fossanova, where Thomas was buried, feared that the remains might be stolen and taken off to a Dominican resting place.
Jealous of their treasure, the Cistercians took macabre precautions. They “exhumed the corpse of Brother Thomas from its resting place, cut off the head and placed it in a hiding place in a corner of the chapel.” That way, if the corpse were taken, the head would still be theirs. His sister was given a hand, a finger of which was to take a grisly trajectory of its own.
The reverent mutilations continued. By the time the canonization process began in 1319, the corpse had been reduced to bones, from which the flesh had been boiled away. In 1396 the bones were moved to the Dominican monastery at Toulouse. The remains were relocated to the church of St. Sernin during the French Revolution, then returned to the monastery in 1974. They rest there today.
A person who knows of Thomas only through his philosophical writings might conclude that his corpse had more interesting experiences than he did. Thomas did spend more hours reading and writing than most of us could imagine, but his life was hardly uneventful.
Black Sheep, White Habit
Thomas Aquinas was born in the family castle at Roccasecca in 1225. At five, he began school at Montecassino, the great Benedictine monastery that was almost visible from the promontory on which the family castle stood.
The commanding site of the monastery offered military advantage, and the ongoing struggle between the forces of the emperor and those of the pope made Montecassino unsafe. Thomas was therefore enrolled in the University of Naples, where he first met members of the Order of Preachers, or Dominicans.
Like the Franciscans, the Dominicans were a mendicant order whose friars vowed to live faithfully in poverty, chastity and obedience. Dominic had wanted his followers to be well trained for the refutation of heresy, so the order also emphasized education.
Attracted by the Dominican ideal, Thomas joined the order in 1244. This shocked his family. They took him captive and held him for a year, seeking to dissuade him from his decision.
Thomas’s family hoped he would become a Benedictine and live at Montecassino, where an uncle had been abbot. That was a respectable ecclesiastical career his brothers could understand. But Thomas would not abandon his more demanding vocation, nor would he consent to merely wear his white Dominican habit under a black cloak while living among the black-habited Benedictines.
His brothers sought to turn Thomas from the religious life by subjecting him to the ultimate test. They sent a woman into Thomas’s room to seduce him. The young friar drove her from the room, then fell on his knees. From that moment on, it is said, he suffered no more temptations against purity.
The family finally accepted Thomas’s choice, and he traveled north to the University of Paris. His peers there might have voted him “most studious,” but hardly anyone deemed him “most likely to succeed.”
When Thomas attended lectures, he seldom spoke, leading his fellow students to conclude that he was, if not physically, then intellectually, dumb. They nicknamed him “dumb ox.”
Thomas’s mentor, Albert (who would be called the Great), knew better. He replied that the bellowing of this ox would be heard throughout the world.
Thomas surmounted the academic challenges at Paris. Navigating institutional politics proved more difficult.
Many Paris masters disliked Dominicans and Franciscans. These orders were a standing rebuke to clergy who had grown worldly and indifferent. It was one thing for Dominic and his first followers to study at Paris, but when Dominicans and Franciscans sought appointment to the ranks of teaching professors, the masters resisted.
When Thomas, along with Bonaventure, his Franciscan counterpart, completed the requirements to be named masters of theology, they were refused admission to the ranks of professors. The pope himself intervened to get the two admitted.
A Master at Work
The task of the master of theology was summed up in three infinitives: legere, disputare, praedicare (to lecture, to dispute, to preach). The theological curriculum consisted of two tracks: Scripture and the Sentences of Peter Lombard, a theological compilation.
The master of theology, designated magister sacrae paginae, lectured on books of the Old and New Testament. Thomas’s surviving biblical commentaries include work on all the epistles of Paul and on the gospels of John and Matthew. Thomas also penned a remarkable work called the Golden Chain (Catena Aurea), an anthology of comments by the Fathers on the four gospels.
A commentary on Job, an unfinished commentary on the Psalms (he got through the first 51), and one on Isaiah represent Thomas’s work on the Old Testament.
Disputations complemented the exegetical effort of lecturing. During a disputation, students and masters presented prepared comments on a difficult question. At the end of the day, the presiding master provided a magisterial summary and defense of his thesis.
But his responsibilities were not done. Within a stated period, the master had to provide to the stationer of the university a written version of the dispute, which others could have copied.
Thomas’s writings include several Disputed Questions, clustered around discussions of truth, God’s power, charity, and the cardinal virtues. These are not transcripts of the events that occasioned them, but they do give the flavor of debate at a medieval university.
In addition, every master of theology was a priest and therefore expected to preach. The sermons of Thomas still await a definitive edition, but those he preached on the creed, on the Lord’s Prayer, and on the Ave Maria are well known in the Latin translation from the Italian in which he delivered them.
Though Thomas took these traditional academic pursuits very seriously, his intellectual endeavors ranged much further. A “new” philosophy threatened the Christian worldview, and someone needed to respond.
Aristotle: Friend or Foe?
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a massive amount of classical writing became available in Latin translation. Aristotle ranked foremost among the newly rediscovered authors.
In Toledo, a team of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars produced the first translations of his text, as well as of the commentaries on them by such Islamic scholars as Avicenna and Averroes. Some of Aristotle’s works had been known in monastic and cathedral schools, as had a partial translation of Plato’s Timaeus, but the giants of Greek philosophy were rarely read except indirectly through Augustine and other church fathers.
The liberal arts tradition, going back to the fifth century, had established a working balance of secular and sacred learning. Secular learning (study of the seven liberal arts) provided a foundation for sacred learning (study of the Bible). Reason and faith were considered compatible and complementary.
Aristotle shattered this confidence. For one thing, his works—including Nicomachean Ethics and the Politics, Physics, and Metaphysics—did not fit into any of the seven liberal arts. Natural knowledge of the world, philosophy, obviously covered much more ground than had been imagined.
Moreover, Aristotle’s impressive treatises seemed to conflict with Christian faith, particularly on these three subjects:
Creation. In the course of proving the existence of a Prime Mover, Aristotle stated that the world of moved and moving things had always existed. This left no room for, “In the beginning, God. . . . "
Afterlife. Aristotle was understood to deny personal immortality. In speaking of the soul, he argued that intellect could not corrupt and cease to be, but he seemed to mean an intellect existing separately from humans. Thus, while individual humans perished, disembodied Intellect went on. Christian dogma described a very different eternal destiny.
Providence. By describing God as “thought thinking itself,” Aristotle apparently denied that God knew or cared about anything other than himself. This God’s eye could not possibly be on the sparrow.
The Aristotelian challenge provoked three responses.
Bonaventure and the Franciscan school concluded that, because Aristotle contradicts Christian doctrine, he is obviously wrong and his writings are of no use in the pursuit of truth.
The so-called Latin Averroists admitted that Aristotle says things that are different from what Christian believers hold, but this is because he is doing philosophy, where his positions make sense. The fact that they conflict with revealed truths is not a problem, because philosophy and theology are different realms.
Thomas chose to read Aristotle carefully and see if he was indeed a menace to the faith. Thomas commented on a dozen works of Aristotle, seeking an accurate understanding of the text. This convinced him that Aristotle’s thought was, for the most part, true and compatible with Christian revelation.
On the questions of personal immortality and divine providence, Thomas argued that the presumed errors of Aristotle stemmed from a misreading by Islamic commentators. As for Creation, Christians must accept that on the basis of revelation. A person operating without divine revelation could logically conclude that the world had always existed.
Early in his career as a master, Thomas began a number of summaries of Christian doctrine: the Summa contra Gentiles, the Compendium of Theology, and his most famous work, the Summa Theologica. He completed only the first of these.
At first, Thomas wrote his works with his own hand. His writing suggests someone left-handed, writing in great haste in the Latin shorthand of the time. Thomas’s hand has been dubbed the litera inintelligibilis, unreadable writing. No wonder that with time he was assigned secretaries to take dictation.
Toward the end of his career, though, he ceased writing—or dictating—almost altogether. A series of mystical experiences, to which his fellow friars attested, apparently influenced this decision.
In his last years, spent in Naples, Thomas was often observed in mystical rapture. He spoke and wrote less and less until his final year, which he reportedly spent in silence.
In 1274, the pope summoned him to consult on doctrinal questions at the Council of Lyons. On the way, Thomas fell ill. Some writers speculate that he simply had no desire to continue arguing his work, which he had come to view as mere “straw.”
When the seriousness of Thomas’s condition became clear, he was removed to the Cistercian abbey at Fossanova. The monks there are said to have asked him to comment on the Song of Songs, and he complied.
One report holds that when those reading the text to him spoke the words, “Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the fields,” Thomas fainted. After he revived, he received the Viaticum, or final Communion. Then he died.
Throughout his life, Thomas sought the removal of all obstacles between himself and God. In death, he finally achieved unity with God. His corpse may have gone on to its own adventures, but his mind and soul rested at last.
By Ralph McInerny
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #73 in 2002]Ralph McInerny is the director of the Jacques Maritain Center at Notre Dame and has written and edited many books on Aquinas. He also writes mystery fiction, including the Father Dowling series.
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