He is honored as a Doctor of the Church, the Angelic Doctor, the Church’s “very own theologian and philosopher,” and patron of Catholic schools and universities.

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, Dominican friar, priest, philosopher, and theologian.  He died in 1274 when he was not quite fifty, leaving his unfinished magnum opus, the Summa Theologiae.  Down through the centuries, college students and scholars alike have poured over this masterpiece of clarity, line by line.

His biographers record that on Dec 6, 1273, while celebrating Mass, Thomas fell into ecstasy.  Though he didn’t speak of it, his secretary begged him to continue his work on the Summa, but he replied, “Reginald, I cannot, because all that I have written seems like straw.” He never again wrote or dictated anything.

His Life, Summarized

Thomas Aquinas was born in Roccasecca, a small town near Monte Cassino in the Northern Kingdom of Sicily.  As a child, he was educated first by the Benedictines at Monte Cassino and later studied at the University of Naples. Ridiculed by fellow students as a “dumb ox” because of his taciturn manner, he cared little if they thought him a dunce. His powers of analysis and abstraction soon proved them wrong.  What is it that they say about still water running deep?

Though intellectually superior to his opponents, Thomas avoided personal attacks on them when given the chance to embarrass them.  G.K. Chesterton writes that “he had a massive and magnetic presence; he had an intellect that could act like a huge system of artillery spread over the whole world; he had that instantaneous presence of mind in debate, which alone really deserves the name of wit.  But it never occurred to him to use anything except his wits, in defense of a truth, distinct from himself.  It never occurred to Aquinas to use Aquinas as a weapon.”

Despite fierce opposition from his family, Thomas chose to enter the Dominican Order, attracted as he was to its charism of teaching and preaching.  His became a protégé of the distinguished scientist and future Dominican saint, Albert the Great, who predicted that the teaching of his student ‘would one day produce such a bellowing that it would be heard throughout the world.’ 

Thomas lectured at the university level all his life, at the University of Paris and in his own Italian province.  In 1274, Gregory X asked him to attend the Second Council of Lyon to reconcile the Latin West with Greek Orthodox Christendom.  On his way, he fell ill.  He died in the nearby Cistercian Abbey of Fossa Nuova.    

Work Ethic of St. Thomas

Some people love to work at their art or profession with little diversion.  Mozart, for one, was never not composing.  Whether he was walking or riding in a carriage, even in his sleep, he was working on a piece of music.  He died at thirty-six, having composed more than six hundred works. The same could be said of Johann Sebastian Bach who died at sixty-five, his compositions numbering more than one thousand. Every week, he had to write a cantata for the Lutheran Sunday service, the long one, lasting four hours and the short one, only two.

Aquinas was known as a clear and original thinker and a powerhouse of quiet, consistent energy.  In his style, Thomas strove for clarity, reserve, and transparency.  He tried to reflect the order of the world with rigor and clarity. The theological synthesis of the Summa Theologiae dealt with topics such as the atheism and existence of God, how to know God, and what we would today call language about God through analogy,  humankind, its virtues and vices, Jesus Christ and the Incarnation, and the sacraments.  There were other ‘summas,’ academic disputations, expositions of Sacred Scripture, writings on Aristotle, and polemical writings! Thomas arranged for a well-organized staff of secretaries to copy needed texts and take dictation, as his own handwriting was illegible. The New Catholic Encyclopedia shows a facsimile of an autograph manuscript with an example of his littera inintellligibis (14:103).  The scope and content of his works are breathtaking! Unrivalled!

In the thirteenth century, Europe was a world of three faiths, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim. Though the Protestant Revolt was still some three hundred years away, the Church faced a deepening schism between the Latin and Eastern Orthodox Churches. Reconciliation was high on the Church’s agenda.

In his pursuit of truth, Thomas’ enlisted the views not only of Christian writers like Augustine and Anselm but also of men of other faiths, including the Jewish philosopher Maimonides and the Muslims, Avicenna and Averroes. They became interlocutors in the Summa Theologiae.  For Thomas, “there was no opposition between truths discovered by reason and those revealed by God” (W. Principe, “St. Thomas Aquinas, Encyclopedia of Catholicism, 94).

Aristotle confirmed Thomas’ own belief that human knowledge begins with experience; ‘nothing is found in the intellect which is not first found in the senses.’ Because of the Incarnation, the divine is humanized, and the human is divinized.  Thomas could see in the senses the wonder of the Incarnation.

One Line, Studied and Studied Again

The Ancients and the Church Fathers couldn’t quite formulate a satisfactory definition of beauty.  It took Thomas Aquinas to sum up ancient and patristic teaching on beauty, offering a terse definition of it:  “Beauty relates to the cognitive faculty; for beautiful things are those things which please when they are seen” (Summa Theologiae, I, q 5, a4,).  Beauty is what pleases the eye (id quod visum placet). He gives three formal criteria of beauty: (1) integrity or wholeness, (2) proportion or harmony, and (3) clarity, brilliance or radiance.

Something is beautiful not because I say so, or because I like it.  A thing has beauty, and  it pleases me if I have the capability of seeing the beauty.  There has to be something beautiful outside of me before I can respond to it as beautiful.  A beautiful sunset presents itself to me, and I respond to it as beautiful.  An easy example to grasp.

Integrity or wholeness means that the parts fit together as a unified and intelligible whole.  Proportion or harmony connotes a certain aptitude of the parts fitting together to produce its overall harmony that is good. The idea of proportion conjures up ballet dancers, trapeze artists, the sitting Buddha or a Pythagorean theorem.  Here we see balance, symmetry, and harmony at their finest.

Finally, brilliance refers to things that are what they should be.  Because of this, they are lightsome and conspicuous. These three criteria are taken together as one.

So much for an abbreviated discussion of Thomas’ simple sentence, “Beauty is that which pleases the eye” (id quod visum placet).


The Church has found in St. Thomas Aquinas a shining exemplar of sanctity and scholarship.  Thomas was that official theologian “who treated the radiant power of Christ’s revelation without any trace of decadence.  But after Thomas Aquinas, theologians of such stature are rare.”  For several hundred years, his influence was so widespread, that after him came schools of theology that were essentially a process of commentary on his works.”  (Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord II, 16). The poem below by Emily Dickinson is a fitting tribute to this saint and scholar.

I fear a Man of frugal Speech—
I fear a Silent Man—
Haranguer—I can overtake—
Or Babbler—entertain—
But He who weigheth—While the Rest—
Expend their furthest pound—
Of this Man—I am wary—
I fear that He is Grand—.