Monday, October 26, 2009

St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

A century before the Black Death swept through Europe, a crisis of another sort was brewing. The long-lost works of Aristotle were suddenly rediscovered. You wouldn't think that the discovery of some dusty old philosophical manuscripts would be comparable to the arrival of the bubonic plague, but a lot had happened since those manuscripts had gone missing. Mainly, Christianity. And Aristotle’s works seemed to contradict some of its key tenets, including that one about a God who created the cosmos. Not surprisingly, the Church initially banned Aristotle’s works.

But we know what happens when you ban books. Before long everyone was reading Aristotle -- and the Church was forced to try a new strategy: to embrace him -- by finding ways to reconcile him with Christian beliefs. And no one was better at that task than Thomas Aquinas. By the 14th-century, Aristotle had gone from being banned to becoming required reading at the universities!

Aquinas wrote prolifically, culminating in his great masterpiece Summa Theologica, a massive work summarizing all of Christian doctrine -- at least as understood by Aquinas. He did not, however, complete this great work. On December 6, 1273, during Mass, he underwent some mystical experience, upon which he suddenly ceased to write -- explaining that all that he’d written now seemed to him “like straw.” He died just months later, at 49.

A short time after his death, Aquinas was canonized by the Church, to become Saint Thomas. His works went on to become the main text to which all the rest of Christian philosophy amounts to just footnotes.

Some straw!