Thomas Aquinas: Philosophy and Education in the Middle ages

In Catholic seminaries, three of the first four years of study is devoted to Greek philosophy, mainly Aristotle. Aristotle is central to Catholic theology because the bulk of it derives from the dazzling intellect of Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) who built his theology on Aristotle.

Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico

Aristotle ostensibly demonstrated that the universe could be understood without recourse to religion and its associated divine revelation. This understanding, however, was not concerned with ultimate questions about existence and about God, which other religions such Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism are concerned with.

For example, the Greek gods had a modest influence over mankind compared to the God of the Hebrews. For one, when the Greek gods arrived in the universe, the universe was already all there. In contrast, the God of the Hebrews not only pre-existed the universe, He created it. Also, the Greek gods had no control over human (random) fate , whereas the central teaching of the Bible (Old Testament and New) is that God is a sovereign ruler and sustainer of all things. Greek religion had its ceremonies and rituals and its – believed, if not perceived – benefits. But it didn’t matter one iota whether you attended the ceremonies or practised the rituals. Greek religion couldn’t conceive – and if it did, probably wouldn’t have cared – that religion could give you a purpose in life, or that it could “renew your mind” (Romans1:2). Such an idea was totally foreign to the Greek mind. You don’t renew your mind, you expand it, you unfold it. The creation account in Genesis, for example, or the theological disputes in Christian theology would be regarded with amusement, even disdain. In this regard, the modern mind is very similar to the classical mind. When a Greek citizen took time off from his busy banqueting schedule to meditate on deep issues, he’d take a dip into philosophy for answers; Greek philosophy, naturally. Anything else was trivial. The modern secular mind is very similar to the classical mind in their disdain of theology and faith, which they consider to be not only delusional piffle but “lethally dangerous” (Dawkins, Richard, November 11, 2001, “Has the world changed?“. The Guardian).

Aristotle, like all Greeks, hadn’t read, nor would he have cared to read, the Hebrew Scriptures. It would’ve been beneath his Hellenic hubris and Attic dignity to do so. Attic Greek is the prestige dialect of Ancient Greek that was spoken in Attica, which includes Athens. Of the ancient dialects, it is the most similar to later Greek, and is the standard form of the language studied in courses of “Ancient Greek” (Wikipedia).

Aristotle, like all the Greek philosophers before and after him, were preoccupied with the idea God. Theology, the study (logos) of God (theos) could be undertaken purely through the natural means of reason and ordinary experience. Revealed theology wasn’t necessary to know God, because natural theology could do the job. The Christian view is that God is there, but he is not silent. (He Is There and He Is Not Silent” is the title of a book by Francis Schaeffer. This book deals with the philosophic necessity of God being there and not being silent). The classical view is that although God is – supernaturally – there, he is indeed silent, and would – naturally – remain so.

After the final demise of the Roman Empire in 476 (there are 210 theories on why Rome fell, and more keep cropping up), interest in classical literature waned until it was largely forgotten. But in later centuries, classical literature and philosophy began to see a resurgence. Its pagan worldview, however, was a threat to Christianity. The idea that God could be discovered without the aid of scripture was seen as a threat to Christian tradition. In several instances there was fierce opposition, which sometimes triggered riots, and even heresy trials.

It was only in the 9th century, under Charlemagne’s (King of the Franks. 747 – 814) educational reforms that opposition to the classics melted away.

In the Middle Ages, theology was well established as the queen of the sciences, and philosophy was its handmaiden. “Science” in the Middle Ages up to the Enlightenment of the 18th century signified any systematic recorded “knowledge” (Latin scientia). “Science” had the same broad meaning as “Philosophy” (Greek philo “love” and sophos “knowledge, wisdom”.

The Enlightenment is a period in Western culture and philosophy that divested itself of religious beliefs and resuscitated the the classical faith in reason. The Enlightenment resuscitated the Aristotelian idea of the primacy of reason. The difference between the Reformation and the Enlightenment is that on the Reformation view, justification is by faith alone; whereas on the Enlightenment view, justification is by faith in reason alone. Though “faith in reason” is an oxymoron” (Greek oxy “pointed”, moron “silly”), it is not for practical purposes a contradiction. I explain:

How do we know, how do we prove that our noggins are rational? That’s easy; use your noggin. This, however, is no solution, because you can’t use your noggin to prove you have a noggin, that is, you can’t use your reason to prove that your reason is rational. If we cannot prove our reason is rational, this does not stop us living out our practical lives. So, although the foundation principle of our knowledge may remain out of reach, this does affect the practical uses of knowledge. It’s a bit like God; we may ignore or be ignorant of Him, yet this does not affect the comfortable life of being a professor of theology or Greek philosophy.

When Rome fell, Greek literature and philosophy had been largely forgotten in Medieval Europe. The Medieval Church in Europe did not only encourage the study of Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, but also encouraged Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes. It was Muslim scholarship, mainly Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd), that introduced Greek philosophy to the West. There was also the great Jewish philosopher, Moses Maimonides. Aquinas had a great respect for Maimonides. There is written on Moses Maimonides’ tombstone: “From Moshe (Moses) to Moshe (Moses Maimonides) there was none like Moshe.” A Catholic might want to add “until Thomas.

Thomas Aquinas was called “the dumb ox” at school. He was very fat, and suffered from dropsy, and one eye was much bigger than the other. (This feature is not clear in the Fra Angelico picture above). In his youth, he was lethargic, introspective, spoke little, and most of the time was lost to the world.

When he was 18, he had set his mind on becoming a friar in the Dominican order. A monk. A vow of poverty. On his way to Rome, he was nabbed by his brothers, who brought him home. He was kept prisoner for more than a year.

No threats, no entreaties, no prayers, no enticements could deter him. What about an Abbot? Or a Bishoprick? Ok, then, an Archbishoprick; there’s one going in Naples. Even a prostitute secreted into his chambers could not dampen his resolve.

His family finally relented, and Thomas was sent to Cologne to study under Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great)’ “Magnus” because he was the greatest scholastic philosopher in Europe. Thomas went to Paris where he studied and obtained his Master’s degree. He also wrote some of his works there. In about 1261, Pope Urban invited him to come and teach in Rome. About 10 years later he returned to Paris. Soon after, he founded a new studium generale in Naples. A studium generale is the medieval name for an education institution of international excellence. The universities of Paris, Oxford and Cambridge, which were established in the early 13th century were three other studia generalia.

Thomas is called Doctor Angelicus, which the Roman Catholic Church translates as “Angelic Doctor”. This does not mean that he was angelic but that he was an expert on angels, a “doctor of angels.”

Aquinas was the greatest of the “Scholastics” (Schoolmen). Scholasticism is a medieval Catholic school of philosophy and theology. The roots of Scholasticism go back to the 8th century educational reforms of Charlemagne (Charles the Great; 747 – 814), King of the Franks. Education was called the “liberal arts”; “liberal” because education was open only to freemen (Latin: liber, “free”), and not to slaves.

The modern term ‘liberal arts’ is a curriculum aimed at developing intellectual abilities, in contrast to a vocational, professional, or technical curriculum. In ancient Greece and Rome (the classical period), the term designated the education appropriate to a freeman as opposed to a slave. In the feudal system of the Middle Ages, education was open only to the privileged few – the equivalent of the classical freeman of Greece and Rome. Education was limited to those who didn’t need to make a living.

The education curriculum consisted of two main divisions. The trivium (“three”) and the quadrivium (“four”). The trivium consisted of three language subjects: “grammar”, “rhetoric” and “dialectic”. The quadrivium consists of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Let me say more about the trivium of “grammar”, “rhetoric” and “dialectic”.

The classical and medieval meaning of “grammar” was not restricted to the rules of language. “Grammar” consisted of rules as well as literature, for example, poetry and drama.

Rhetoric” is the art of persuading an listeners or readers to feel, think or act a certain way. “Rhetoric” also has the ordinary (non-academic) meaning of “empty words”, “hot air”, as in “He’s all rhetoric and no substance.” “Rhetoric” in this sense is the most trivial of the trivium.

The third component of the trivium was “dialectic”. “Dialectic was another name for logical reasoning, or simply, “logic”. The classical philosophers as well as the Medieval theologians based their intellectual practice on the assumption that all mentally healthy humans are endowed with the same rules of logic: the rules of my mind are the same as the rules of everyone else’s mind. The dialectical method is also called the Socratic method, because it came down to us through Socrates via Plato. (Plato, a pupil of Socrates, preserved and expanded his teacher’s thought in the “Platonic dialogues”).

The Socratic method takes the form of a debate. Participants in the debate explore one another’s positions in a stimulating, rational and illuminating way. The Socratic debate, however, doesn’t merely involve a sharing of ideas. The crux – and the fun -of a dialectic debate involves cutting and thrusting through contrary points of view. Each participant tries to lead the other to contradict himself. You don’t try and prove how clever you are; that only strengthens your opponent’s resolve. Instead, you let your opponent kick the ball into his own scrotum.

Plato, in his “Socratic dialogues”, portrays Socrates asking questions that elicit other questions. Socrates may know the answer, but pretends he doesn’t. In this way, the teacher does not lord himself over his pupil. The art is to cross-examine without making the other person peeved; to weed out without making the other person feel a weed, to uncover contradictions without making the other feel naked.

The Socratic method is not only applicable in the formal teaching situation; it is also applicable – and admirably so – in the home. I may talk till I’m blue in the face to my children about all these wise how-to’s, but what ultimate good does it do if I don’t do it myself. My daughter Beccy has often berated me for rubbishing her views.

The aim of both dialectic and rhetoric is to persuade. But dialectic restricts itself to rational persuasion, whereas “rhetoric” covers all kinds of persuasion such as how to feel and act. “Rhetoric” is often a one-sided matter. Somebody talks and somebody listens. Dialectic, in contrast, aims to persuade through rational discussion, through dialogue, the (objective) truth of a matter.

Although scholasticism developed a poor reputation during and after the Renaissance, scholastic writers had produced useful philosophical ways of explaining Catholic doctrine. Aquinas used the Aristotelian terms of “accidents” and “substance” to explain the most important of Catholic doctrines, the “real presence”, which is called transubstantation. In transubstantiation, the substance of bread and the wine changes into the substance of the body and Spirit of Christ. Although the senses can only detect the “accidents” (taste, texture, smell, sight), the communicant – claims the dogma – is eating the actual flesh and blood of the living Christ sitting at the right hand of the Father.

The Catechism of the Council of Trent expands this belief by stating: “In this sacrament are contained not only the true body of Christ, and all the constituents of a true body, such as bones and sinews, but also Christ whole and entire”. Christ whole and entire is contained not only in the body but also in the blood.

Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae covers almost the whole of Catholic theology. He stopped working on it the year before he died in 1274.

Now, fellow Protestants, don’t give Protestantism a bad name by saying that Aquinas believed that all he had written was straw. He didn’t say that. This is what he said: “I cannot go on…. All that I have written seems to me like so much straw compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”