March 7th is the traditional feast day of one of the most important thinkers of Western Civilization, the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1275). Despite being referred to early in life as a “Dumb Ox,” St. Thomas would, nevertheless, profoundly shape the development of Western theology and philosophy.
St. Thomas was instrumental for the reintroduction of Aristotle into Western thought and synthesized Greco-Roman natural law constructs with Christian Revelation to produce the mighty system which became known as “Thomism.” The eminent saint’s importance in this regard cannot be understated as the late Murray Rothbard so aptly describes: “For in reviving and building on Aristotle, St. Thomas introduced and established in the Christian world a philosophy of natural law, a philosophy, in which human reason is able to master the basic truths of the universe. In the hands of Aquinas as in Aristotle, philosophy, with reason as its instrument of knowledge, became once again the queen of the sciences.”*
A prolific and multidimensional writer, St. Thomas’ best-known work was the Summa Theologiae which has been called by one commentator “the fullest exposition of theological teaching ever given to the world.”** He was also an accomplished poet whose hymns such as Lauda Sion and the Adoro Te Devote are some of the most sublime in all of Christian tradition. Legend has it that Pope Urban IV commissioned the Angelic Doctor and St. Bonaventure to compose hymns for the Feast of Corpus Christi. St. Bonaventure, after hearing St. Thomas’ compositions, was so overwhelmed with their splendor that he promptly burned his own.
Sainthood, however, requires more than a brilliant mind and facile pen, and by all accounts St. Thomas led a holy and virtuous life and despite his intellectual prowess remained the humblest of men. Near the conclusion of his life, he received a private revelation which changed him to such a degree that he could no longer engage in scholarly endeavors. He reportedly said, “The end of my labors is come. All that I have written appears to me as so much straw, after the things that have been revealed to me. I hope in the mercy of God that the end of my life may soon follow the end of my labors.***
A characteristic of nearly all seminal thinkers is that history would have been considerably different if they had not lived. This is undeniable in the case of St. Thomas. One of his 20th-century biographers, G.K. Chesterton, summarized the saint’s role in Western intellectual development in this manner: “. . . St. Thomas was one of the great liberators of the human intellect. . . . [He] was a very great man who reconciled religion with reason, who expanded it toward experimental science, who insisted that the senses were the windows of the soul and that reason had a divine right to feed upon fact, and that it was the business of the faith to digest the strong meat of the toughest and most practical of pagan philosophies.”****
Saint, confessor, theologian, philosopher, mystic, poet, the Angelic Doctor’s works were the summit of the often and wrongly maligned Medieval Era and until St. Thomas is returned to his exalted status, Western Civilization will continue its tragic decline.
*Murray N. Rothbard, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith: An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Volume 1 (Brookfield, VT.: Edward Elgar Publishing Company, 1995), p. 57.
**Herbart J. Thurston and Donald Attwater, eds., Butler’s Lives of the Saints, rev. edition (Allen, Texas: Christian Classics, 1996), vol. 1, p. 512.
***Dominican Saints of the Rosary Series, St. Thomas Aquinas: Universal Doctor of the Church (Rockford, Ill.: TAN Books and Publishers, inc., 1995), p. 30.
****G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: image books Doubleday, 1956), pp. 32-33.