What Led Aquinas To Craft Greatest Theological ‘Symphony’
Today the church praises Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) among the greatest saints in heaven. But the cause for his canonization was hardly a slam-dunk.
Catholics expect miracles from their saints, some supernatural confirmation of their holiness: sudden cures through their intercession, the stigmata, or at least an instance of bilocation.
Those tasked with the study of Thomas’s life complained that his miracles were few and not that impressive.
One of the Cardinals in the room responded immediately that there were as many miracles in Thomas’s life as there were articles in the Summa Theologica, his greatest work. Every article was so well wrought that it seemed superhuman — a miracle.
MOST AUTHORITATIVE WORK, WITH BIBLE AND PAPAL DECREES
The Summa is indeed a marvel. Though unfinished at the end of St. Thomas’s life, it totals more than two million words. Its influence has been profound, and it is uncontested as one of the great works of western civilization. No other non-scriptural text has received such deference as the Summa. At the Council of Trent, it was placed on the altar as an authority, alongside the Bible and papal decrees.
Thomas did not invent the summa’s form. It was a literary genre of his time, a compendium of theology, philosophy, and canon law, used as a student textbook and professional reference. The most popular one in Thomas’s day was written by Peter Lombard a century earlier, called The Four Books of Sentences. One of Thomas’s great early works was a commentary on the Sentences.
By his mid-30s, Thomas was renowned throughout Europe as a teacher and theologian. A Dominican friar, he taught students at the University of Paris, but also advised popes and kings. He gave himself entirely to the tasks, writing important works in theology and philosophy. Throughout his adulthood, his production was astonishing. He averaged a thousand words of finished, polished prose per day. So complete was his attention, his secretary recalled, that he would hold a candle in his hand while dictating as the evening grew dark — and would fail to notice when the candle burned down so far that it burned his hand! He dictated to three or four secretaries at a time, and sometimes continued to dictate while he was sleeping.
It was perhaps inevitable that Thomas would be assigned to write a textbook to replace the Sentences. Though Peter Lombard’s great work served students for over 100 years, it had obvious defects — some of the questions seemed silly and pointless; and the organization was haphazard and redundant.
Thomas was just the man to produce a supercharged and streamlined summa, for maximum clarity and efficiency
He conceived his Summa Theologica (or Summa Theologiae) in three parts: the first would consider God’s existence, nature, and creative acts; the second, morality and law; and the third, the person and work of Jesus Christ, in His earthly ministry and as it continues in the Church.
EACH DISCUSSION TOPIC BEGINS WITH STRONGEST OPPOSITION
Every article is a marvel of charity and generosity. Thomas begins each discussion with the three strongest arguments against the proposition he will eventually defend. He was not interested in belittling the claims of heretics. In fact, scholars often say that the clearest and most persuasive arguments in favor of the major heresies can be found in the Summa. Thomas actually improved the arguments against orthodoxy and made them as strong as he could — before he demolished them.
He wrote Part 1 of the Summa in Viterbo, Italy, in 1267, while an advisor at the papal court. He was invited to be archbishop of Naples, but declined so he could continue work on the Summa. His superiors sent him back to the University of Paris in 1269, and he returned to lecturing on the New Testament and presiding over debates (disputations). There in Paris, he composed Part 2. In the spring of 1272 he went to Florence, Italy, for a general conference of the Dominican order. He was asked to establish a new house of studies in Naples, and it was there that he worked on the third and final part of the Summa.
UNFINISHED DOCTRINAL ‘SYMPHONY’
But it was not to be finished. One day Thomas was at prayer, and something happened that left him shaken. Afterward he refused to take up his masterwork. His main secretary, Reginald, begged him to go on, but Thomas refused. “Reginald,” he said, “I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw to me.”
And so the Summa remained when Thomas died a few months later. Many then, and in the years to follow, mourned this as tragic. Joseph Pieper, however, a great modern interpreter of Aquinas, said that incompletion is, in this case, not a bug, but a feature! Thomas knew that all our knowledge is fragmentary, and he was suspicious of “systems” that claimed to explain everything. Still, his Summa — as the popes testify — comes as close as anything in history.
What does such a prodigy have to teach those of us who are not quite so gifted as he? We can imitate his generous spirit with opponents and rivals. We can imitate his holy ambition and concentration. And we can accept, as he did, the limits God might put on our achievements. God wants faithfulness, not mere success.
MIKE AQUILINA is an EWTN host and author of more than 50 books, including Praying in the Presence of Our Lord with St. Thomas Aquinas.