Adams, Henry: Saint Thomas Aquinas
[A chapter from his book Mont Saint Michel and Chartres]
LONG BEFORE Saint Francis’s death in 1226 the French mystics had exhausted their energies and the siecle had taken new heart. Society could not remain forever balancing between thought and act. A few gifted natures could absorb themselves in the absolute, but the rest lived for the day, and needed shelter and safety. So the Church bent again to its task, and bade the Spaniard Dominic arm new levies with the best weapons of science, and flaunt the name of Aristotle on the Church banners along with that of Saint Augustine. The year 1215, which happened to be the date of Magna Charta and other easily fixed events, like the birth of Saint Louis, may serve to mark the triumph of the schools. The pointed arch reveled at Reims and the Gothic architects reached perfection at Amiens just as Francis died at Assisi and Thomas was born at Aquino. The Franciscan Order itself was swept with the stream that Francis tried to dam, and the great Franciscan school man, Alexander Hales, in 1222, four years before the death of Francis, joined the order and began lecturing as though Francis himself had lived only to teach scholastic philosophy.
The rival Dominican champion, Albertus Magnus, began his career a little later, in 1228. Born of the noble Swabian family of Bollstadt, in 1193, he drifted, like other school men, to Paris, and the Rue Maitre Albert, opposite Notre Dame, still records his fame as a teacher there, Thence he passed to a school established by the Order at Cologne, where he was lecturing with great authority in 1243 when the General Superior of the Order brought up from Italy a young man of the highest promise to be trained as his assistant.
Thomas, the new pupil, was born under the shadow of Monte Cassino in 1226 or 1227. His father, the Count of Aquino, claimed descent from the imperial line of Swabia; his mother, from the Norman princes of Sicily; so that in him the two most energetic strains in Europe met. His social rank was royal, and the Order set the highest value on it. He took the vows in 1243, and went north at once to help Albertus at Cologne. In 1245 the Order sent Albertus back to Paris, and Thomas with him. there he remained till 1248 when he was ordered to Cologne as assistant-lecturer, and only four years afterwards, at twenty-five years old, he was made full professor at Paris. His industry and activity never rested till his death in 1274, not yet fifty years old, when he bequeathed to the Church a mass of manuscript that tourists will never know enough to estimate except by weight. His complete works, repeatedly printed, fill between twenty and thirty quarto volumes. For so famous a doctor, this is almost meagre. Unfortunately his greatest work, the Summa Theologiae, is unfinished – like Beauvais Cathedral.
Perhaps Thomas’s success was partly due to his memory which is said to have been phenomenal; for, in an age when Cyclopaedias were unknown, a cyclopaedic memory must have counted for half the battle in these scholastic disputes where authority could be met only by authority; but, in this case, memory was supposed memory was supported by mind. Outwardly Thomas was heavy and slow in manner, if it is true that his companions called him “the big dumb ox of Sicily;” and in fashionable or court circles he did not enjoy reputation for acute sense of humor. Saint Louis’ household offers a picture not wholly clerical, least of all among the king’s brothers and sons, and perhaps the dinner-table was not much more used then than now, to abrupt interjections of theology into the talk about hunting and hounds; but however it happened, Thomas one day surprised the company by solemnly announcing:- “I have a decisive argument against the Manicheans!” No wit or humor could be more to the point,- between two Saints that were to be, – than a decisive argument against enemies of Christ, and one greatly regrets that the rest of the conversation was not reported, unless indeed it is somewhere in the twenty quarto volumes; but it probably lacked humor for courtiers.