In One Sentence
A man from a wealthy family who never quite fit in became a monk, rose above people’s assumptions, and developed into the preeminent, roving medieval academic and quintessential Catholic theologian of the 13th century.
Thomas Aquinas was born in 1225 in what is now central Italy. Born into wealth and privilege, Thomas was the anomaly in both his own family and the general society of Europe. When those around him enjoyed more violent pursuits and regular forays into excess of all sorts, Thomas was disinclined to participate. His powerful family planned a life for him in the Church following in the footsteps of an uncle who was an abbot. At the age of 5, Thomas began his studies of theology, philosophy, mathematics, and more as he moved about between a series of schools. However, at age 19, Thomas would have a change of heart that would shock his powerful and connected family.
The newly formed Dominican Monastic Order called its members to forego all property and wealth and instead take up the role of traveling and preaching. Leaving behind his former wealth, Thomas joined the Order. His mother did not give up easily and had Thomas’s brothers capture him, and he faced subsequent confinement under his family’s watchful eye for a year. Legend says that it was during this time that his brothers made every effort to woo him back to a “normal” life including bringing an attractive woman into his quarters to tempt him. According to the story, Thomas charged her with a hot poker from the fire both driving her out of the room and driving sin from his life. He was not to be thwarted in his vows to God.
Over his career, Thomas spent significant time studying and then later teaching in Paris as well as across Europe. During his early studies, he earned the nickname “the dumb ox” because of his lumbering size and alleged silence during debates and lectures. However, it was not long before people realized that this calm demeaner merely masked a great intellect who was gathering his thoughts. In the years to follow, it was rare that Thomas did not have a well-developed answer for even the hardest questions.
He dominated the fields of theology, philosophy, and ethics through his teaching and writings that relied on logical arguments. He was fascinated with classical Greek philosophers (particularly Aristotle) and saw no contradiction between faith and reason. His Summa Theologiae (written from 1265-1274) is a must-read for every theologian desiring to understand the impact of the high medieval period on the Christian faith. Thomas died on 7 March 1274 and was canonized as a Catholic saint in 1323. -MF
Where to Begin
Aquinas: Summa Theologiae, Questions on God (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy). This is a great edition with a very helpful introduction and notes.
A personal favorite, though not a true biography nor truly academic, G. K. Chesterton’s book on Thomas is an excellent piece of literature, plus you’ll learn a little about one of Chesterton’s favorite guys: Thomas Aquinas.