Thursday, 15 January 2009

Meet Thomas Aquinas

I thought that Thomas Aquinas deserved a whole post about him and his life - I suspect I'll come back to him more than once in the future, so you ought at least to be introduced. Aquinas is one of the great theologians, like, ever. He wrote about pretty much everything theological topic you can imagine, and was influential enough to be one of the few theologians still studied outside of the world of theology by people writing about ethics, law, politics and philosophy. He's one of only 33 people the Catholic Church have designated a Doctor of the Church (33 might sound like a lot, but bear in mind that's 33 people over 2,000 odd years), and some would argue that he's the Catholic theologian. He's famous for being one of the main people to rediscover Aristotle in the West, for basically inventing the doctrine of transubstantiation, for writing about natural law, and for lots of other things. His most famous work is the Summa Theologiae, possibly the longest theological work ever (if you can fit it on one shelf you're doing well). I reckon a good few days of my life so far have been spent reading Aquinas, and I've read maybe 1% of it.

Thomas was born in 1225 or 1227. His family wanted him to be a Benedictine abbot, which was a very respectable career for a younger son of a noble family in those days. But he decided he wanted to join the Dominican order, much less reputable – where the Benedictines were wealthy landowners, the Dominicans earned their keep largely through begging. His family were unhappy about that, so did what any loving relatives would do – kidnapped him and locked him in their castle for two years. At one point, his brothers tried to break his will by hiring a prostitute to seduce him, but he fought her off with a burning stick. Later on, he told a friend that he'd prayed for God's help in resisting the temptation and had a vision of two angels who gave him a white girdle and told him that it was the girdle of perpetual virginity. In the end, his family let him escape, and off he went. He went to the university in Paris, and began a life of studying and teaching, which continued until his death. He got involved with all sorts of theological controversies, but none of them were that funny, so I won't go into details.

The later years of his life were spent writing his massive Summa Theologiae – basically a comprehensive work about the whole of Christian theology, broken into three parts: the first about God and his creation; the second about humanity and ethics; and the third about Christ and his saving work. Part way through part 3, Aquinas stopped writing, and told his scribe that he couldn't write any more because “it all seems like straw.” Shortly afterwards he became ill, and died on 7 March 1274.

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