The major development in the west came in the 12th century in terms of an intellectual revolution with the recovery of the works of Aristotle who had been partially known through his logical writings known as the Organon. The source of this recovery was the rich tradition of translation and commentary on Aristotle in the Islamic world. In the great centers of Muslim intellectual culture, Aristotle had been brought into Arabic then Latin. And it was in Spain where this intellectual exchange between Christians and Muslims took place.
Through Spain, where there was such a rich tradition of work on Aristotle, the text of the philosopher were available to Christian scholars including the metaphysics, the enema on the soul, and the physics. By the beginning of the 13th century, scholars had most of Aristotle’s major writings which cause the complete transformation of the western intellectual culture.
The supreme representative of the mendicant scholar in the 13th century was indeed Thomas Aquinas. He was born in to the family of the counts of Aquino near Naples. He studied at the Benedictine house of Monte Cassino and went to the university of Naples. And it was there he came into contact with the Dominicans, known as the Blackfriars. And decided that he would himself become a mendicant.
His writings encompass the whole range of theological inquiry in the 13th century. Aquinas develop aspects of Christian theological tradition that affirmed the Creator’s providential intelligence and the resulting order and beauty within the created world. He posited that the more world was explored and understood, the greater knowledge of and reverence for God would result. Since there could only be one valid truth derived from the one God, nothing reason would uncover could ultimately contradict theological doctrine. Tarnas (180) explained, Aquinas went still further, asserting that nature itself could provide a deeper appreciation of divine wisdom, and that a rational exploration of the physical world could disclose its inherent religious value—not just as a dim reflection of the supernatural but on its own terms, a rationally intelligible natural order.
I can not help but to think that Aquinas was referring to nature as a bridge to the spiritual world, his work and teaching has a shamanic undertone. A dramatic expansion of awareness through a powerful connection with Nature as a stage of spiritual unfoldment, one that brings us into direct connection with our spiritual Self. Divine grace did not vitiate nature, but perfected it.
For Aquinas, the natural world was not just an opaque material stage for man nor was nature governed by principles foreign to spiritual concerns. Rather, nature and spirit were intimately bound up with each other, and the history of one touched the history of the other (180). Thomas is brilliant! But like Socrates, this is a red flag to theologians who are opposed to the new scientific perspective because its purported discovery of regular determining laws of nature seemed to diminish God’s free creativity, while also threatening man’s personal responsibility and need for faith in Providence. He could be charged of impiety.
Influenced by Aristotle’s teleological concept of nature’s relation to the highest Form and the Neoplatonic understanding of the all-pervasive One, Aquinas declared a new basis for the dignity and potential of man: Within human nature, as divinely posited, lay the potential for actively moving toward perfect communion with the infinite ground of man’s being, God, who was the source of all development toward perfection in nature. Even human language incarnated the divine wisdom, this sounds like the Logos became flesh. Language is a worthy instrument capable of approaching and elaborating mysteries of creation. It seems like this divine mind is traversing time space and will reveal itself to where there is a call to summon. I truly believe in the bible verse, “Seek and you shall find”.
Building on philosophical developments in the Arab and Christian Neoplatonist traditions, Aquinas aspired to deepen Aristotle by using Platonic principles. Yet he also saw Platonism’s need for Aristotelian principles. Thus he showed complimentary of the two Greek philosophers, of Plato’s exalted spiritual absolute and Aristotle’s dynamically real nature, an integration achieved by using Plato’s participation relative not to the Ideas but to Existence. In doing so, he further corrected Aristotle by showing that concrete individuals were not just isolated substances, but were united both to each other and to God by their common participation in existence (Tarnas 184).
Aquinas followed Aristotle in his regard for nature, yet in his emphatic awareness of superior transcendent reality, immortality and of the individual soul, he continued the Augustinian tradition of medieval theology. I can only imagine how torn Thomas was during this time. He was playing it safe too by playing in both fields. But he was able to justify this in his masterpiece Summa Theologiae.
In Article 2: Is sacred doctrine a science (scientia)? The question goes:
“What’s more, there can be a science—in the sense in which this term is used by the classical philosophers, especially Aristotle in the Posterior Analytics—with respect to divine revelation. That is, what sacred doctrine does is to systematize the contents of divine revelation in such a way that, beginning from starting points or first principles many of which are revealed to us by God, we can proceed by way of argument to exhibit the inner coherence of this revelation along with its metaphysical and moral implications. The main objection to this claim has to do with the starting points. Shouldn’t the starting points of a science be epistemically firm and known in themselves, apart from their relation to other propositions? But how can this be the case with sacred doctrine if some of its starting points are inaccessible to us except through revelation?”
In reply, Aquinas points out that even most of the sciences devised by human reason take their starting points from conclusions in higher sciences on which they are dependent. That is, they take for granted starting points that are not evident in themselves but have been proved in higher sciences to which they are epistemically subordinate. This is just the way it is with sacred doctrine. Its starting points are, as it were, borrowed from the knowledge (scientia) had by God Himself and those rational creatures who see God face-to-face in the beatific vision. So sacred doctrine is related to this higher science (which is simple and non-discursive, a sort of limiting case for science as we know it) in the way that, say, the science of music is related to the mathematical sciences.
Aquinas offered a solution to one of the central and most enduring problems of Scholastic philosophy, the problem of universals. The early medieval doctrine of universals was characteristically that of “Realism”—i.e., the universal existed as a real entity. Using distinctions formulated by Albertus Magnus, strove to resolve the dispute by suggesting that the Ideas had three kinds of existence: as exemplars in the mind of God independent of things (ante rem), as intelligible forms in things (in re), and as concepts in the human mind formed by abstracting from things (post rem). These meticulous epistemological distinctions and other like them were important for Aquinas because for him the naturee and processes of human knowledge bore directly on matters of weighty theological concern (Tarnas 187).
The light of human reason derived its power from the divine Truth which contained the eternal types of all things. In endowing man with this light, God had given him the potential for knowledge of the world, just as God had endowed all beings, as possible objects of knowledge, with intelligibility. As Aristotle had said, the soul was in a sense all things, because it had been created in such a way to have the whole order of the universe inscribed within it. But the highest condition of this knowledge Aquinas recognized as the vision of God—not so much the state of philosophical contemplation recognized by Aristotle as the final end of man, but rather the supreme beatific vision of Christian mysticism. By expanding his own knowledge, man was becoming more like God, and to be like God was man’s true desired end (Tarnas 188).
It is very tempting to think that without a shadow of doubt, Thomas Aquinas was an alchemist. He formulated “The Holy Eucharist” which is the highlight of Catholic mass—the doctrine of transubstantiation of the bread as the body of Christ and wine as the blood of Christ. This is parallel to the alchemical transformation of the inner world in search of the “Philosopher’s Stone,” i.e. through the discovery of Christ’s presence in both macrocosmic and microcosmic reality. His teacher and spiritual guide, Albert Magnus, was himself an alchemist so there is a high probability that Aquinas was an initiate. Dr. Paris noted that Aquinas rationalism was in tension with mysticism, and showed the influence of Dionysus the Areopagite. Dionysus was a Syrian monk who emphasized a Neoplatonic Christian Mysticism that promoted the ultimate unknowability of God.
In conclusion, St. Thomas Aquinas combined Platonic principles with Aristotelian scientific perspective and created his own vision. He believed that truth becomes known through both natural revelation—certain truths are available to all people through their human nature and through correct human reasoning and Supernatural revelation—faith-based knowledge revealed through scripture, and these two elements, which he saw as complementary rather than contradictory in nature. He believed that God reveals himself through nature, so that rational thinking and the study of nature is also the study of God.
For Aquinas, the goal of human existence is union and eternal fellowship with God. The ultimate happiness of man consists in contemplating the divine truth: the contemplation of truth is our ultimate goal and raises us to God. Aquinas’ works have a much greater value for theology today than for philosophy, but we must remember that his time was dominated by religion. His approach to the questions of religion and reasoning were revolutionary for both the Augustinians for whom faith was the only truth and Averroists who wanted to separate the truth from the faith. Aquinas was without a doubt the great theologian of all time.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. https://www3.nd.edu/~afreddos/courses/439/summa1,1.htm
Paris, Reina Manuel. Lecture 8. PHI 501 “The Wisdom of Classical Philosophy” University of Philosophical Research, 2019.
Illustration: The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas (west wall), by Andrea da Firenze. Fresco, 1366-67; Cappellone degli Spagnoli, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.