During the Medieval Warm Period, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) reintroduced the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle into Europe after his ideas had been lost for centuries.
Who Was Thomas Aquinas?
Thomas Aquinas belonged to the Dominican order of the Catholic Church. He was born to a modestly wealthy Italian family. His family hoped that he would become influential in the church. So they sent him to a monastery at age five. He began studying at the University of Naples at age 14. He was a great student, but his beliefs about faith and the church didn’t fit with what most people believed at the time.
Rather than conforming to the popular view to rise through the ranks like his parents hoped, he secretly joined a newly formed order, the Dominicans. Aquinas was devoted to ideas and a new approach to Christianity based on reason.
He became a priest in Germany in 1250. Later, he taught theology at the University of Paris – but he also wrote, preached, and traveled the world.
In 1273, he suddenly stopped writing and teaching after reportedly experiencing a disturbing vision. After his death in 1274, many of his works were condemned by the church. However, years later, he was acknowledged as a major influence on the development of the church. He was recognized by the church as a saint in 1323.
St. Augustine and Plato
Plato believed that ideas are perfect objects that live in “the region above the heaven” or the “hyper-heaven.” He argued that the physical world humans live in is just an imperfect shadow of those ideas. Plato saw our world as an illusion and the world of ideas as real.
St. Augustine saw certain similarities with Plato’s philosophy and the Christian doctrine, and his theology became popular during the Dark Ages, otherwise known as the early Middle Ages. Some people believe that the stagnation during this period is due to the influence of Plato.
Perhaps Aquinas’ biggest achievement was the reintroducing Europeans to Aristotle.
Although Aristotle was Plato’s student, he rejected almost everything his teacher stood for. He, too, believed in ideas but thought they were part of our physical world and that everyone could access them through reason and logic.
Faith and Reason
Even today, nearly 800 years later, the harmony of faith and reason is a pillar of the Catholic Church.
The work of Aquinas popularized Aristotle across Europe and changed Christianity forever. It started a period of renewed optimism and belief in the ability of humans to understand the world through reason.
Although other important people contributed to the Renaissance, it is hard to imagine it could have happened without Thomas Aquinas.