Life and Times
Saint Thomas Aquinas lived in the thirteenth century, a tumultuous century filled with intellectual, ecclesiastical, and military conflicts. He lived from 1225 to 1274. I intend first to give a sketch of his life and his times and then to go on and look at his thought as recorded for us in an enormous number of volumes. We have sufficient information about Thomas's life to get a vivid picture of the kind of man he was and where and how he lived his life. He was born in a little town called Rocca Secca (dry rock). If you were to come down the old Roman road from Rome to Naples you would have seen then as you see now, high on a mountain, the magnificent white tile of the monastery of Monte Cassino which figured in Thomas's life. If you went west from about that point, you would come within twenty kilometers to a town, Rocca Secca. This is a modern town, and if you stop you are really not in Thomas's native city. If you turned and looked to the north there would be a small mountain, and you would see another town half way up that mountain. You might think, there is the town, that's the old town where Thomas lived. You would have to go up to the top of that mountain, and if you did you would see the ruins of the castle in which Thomas Aquinas was born and in which he lived the first five years of his life.
At the age of five he was taken to the monastery of Monte Cassino to begin his education. He stayed at Monte Cassino until about the age of fourteen, and then, as was to happen later, notably during the second World War, military conflict broke out in the vicinity. It was not considered safe for him to remain there, so he was sent down to the new University of Naples, which had been founded by Frederick II, the emperor, who was usually in conflict with the Pope. Thomas's brothers, military men, were on the side of the Emperor against the Pope. It's very confusing for us in many respects now to look back and think of the Pope as a secular as well as a spiritual ruler, a man with armies and a man who sent his troops into combat. It's a little difficult nowadays to think of the Swiss Guard going into combat any place.
At the University of Naples Thomas met members of a new religious order, one that had been founded by Saint Dominic, a Spaniard, a so called Order of Preachers, but more familiarly known as Dominicans, or in the LatinDominicanes. And that was sometimes broken up into two words, Domini and canes, Dogs of the Lord. They were a mendicant order like the Franciscans who had been founded about the same time. Thomas's family was appalled when at the age of nineteen he joined the Dominican Order.
He then started north with a band of his fellow friars in order to continue his education at Cologne and in Paris. But his family was so irate about his joining this ragtag bunch of Dogs of the Lord that they took him into custody, and for a year he was under house arrest by his family, who were trying to persuade him not that he shouldn't have a religious vocation but that if he was going to have one he should go to Monte Cassino. An uncle of his had been Abbot of Monte Cassino. No doubt the family thought that some such elevation as that lay ahead for Thomas. But Thomas was adamant in his Dominican vocation. After an episode in which his brothers put him to the ultimate test and introduced a woman of easy virtue into his room, and he drove her out, they decided, I suppose, that he was serious, and they let him go.
He rejoined the Dominican Friars and went north, perhaps first to Paris. We're not sure of this. But we do know that he was at Cologne studying with the great German Dominican, Albert the Great. It was there that Thomas's knowledge of Aristotle, which had begun at Monte Cassino and then expanded enormously at Naples, was consolidated. Albert was one of the great students of Aristotle in the thirteenth century. Indeed, he wrote a paraphrase of the whole Aristotelean opus.
After Cologne Thomas went to the University of Paris, and there he began and completed his work for the Master's of Theology. After that he was given one of the Regent Professorships that the Dominicans held at Paris -- they had two. Thomas would have taught at the Convent of Saint James, the Dominican convent named for the street on which it stood, the road of Saint James leading to Saint James of Compostela, a great pilgrimage route in the Middle Ages. Thomas would have lectured in the convents; students would have come to him. As you will see, the University of Paris was not an enormous number of buildings put up just for that purpose, but existed in such places as the Dominican convent and the cathedral school at Notre Dame and so forth.
After a three-year stint as a professor at the University of Paris, Thomas was sent by his order back to Italy, and there is a nine- or ten-year period during which we find him at various places in Italy, in Orvieto for example, and in Viterbo. Finally, at the end of the ten years he is teaching at Santa Sabina in Rome, the great Dominican house, which of course is still there. It's sometimes thought that he was a member of the Papal Force. The popes were out of Rome because of the military situation and were in semi-exile in Orvieto and Viterbo, little towns north of Rome. Thomas did indeed become quite friendly with Pope Urban IV, but it doesn't seem to be the case that he was actually a member of the Papal Curia.
At the end of those ten years, this Italian interlude, Thomas was teaching at the Dominican house of Santa Sabina in Rome, and from there he was called back to Paris in an unusual assignment, a second three-year stint, as a Regent Professor of Theology at the University of Paris. For reasons that we will see this was a very intellectually tumultuous time, and it's doubtless the case that he was brought back there in order to confront difficulties that had arisen because of the influx of the writings of Aristotle in Latin translation. He taught for three more years and then, in 1272, he returned to Italy and to Naples. It was when he was on a trip from Naples to the Council at Lyon, a council had been called there, that Thomas fell ill. He stayed first with a niece, and then he was moved to the Cistercian Abbey at Fossanova. It is there, on March 7, 1274, that he died.
The role that Monte Cassino played early in Thomas's life leads us to the larger question of what medieval education consisted of. Thomas happens to have existed or lived at a time when a traditional medieval understanding ofeducation was suddenly disrupted by the introduction of the new learning to which I've already referred. The traditional medieval view dated from the Dark Ages, from the time of a man called Cassiodorus. Though a layman, he founded a monastery in Italy called Vivarium and there wrote an Institutiones, or a constitution for those Monks, in which he laid out the relationship between secular learning on the one hand and sacred learning on the other.
Secular learning was summed up, for Cassiodorus, in the seven liberal arts. Those arts were divided into a trivium and a quadrivium, a threefold way and a fourfold way. The parts of the trivium were grammar, rhetoric and logic. And those of the quadrivium, the fourfold way, were arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. Fourfold way and threefold way -- ways to what? Ways to wisdom. And where is wisdom to be found? In Sacred Scripture. So the arts were intended to be studied as a propaedeudic to the study of Scripture. This was, we might say, an establishment of a modus vivendibetween secular learning and sacred learning that was to last well into the twelfth century.
What can we acquire by means of our own natural capacities? Even the pagans had discovered that the liberal arts were studied in terms of certain authors, authority, so that Prician and Donatus, for example, would be the authors to study for grammar. Aristotle was the author studied for logic, Cicero for rhetoric, and so on. In the Dark Ages, when this was beginning, monasteries like Monte Cassino looked like fortifications, and they were placed so that they could be seen from a long distance, but they could also look out and see if any trouble were coming. In these very uneasy times monasteries were the custodian of such fragments of classical learning as had been shored against the ruin of the Roman Empire and the demise of the Roman system of education, which had of course spread across Europe, but with the Barbarian invasion had collapsed and disappeared. In the Dark Ages the monasteries were getting a recovery of that learning. What is noteworthy is that classical learning, secular learning, is seen in terms of a complementarity with Sacred Scripture, with the truths that had been revealed to us by God in the Bible. This twofold layer, we can surmise, is precisely what Thomas would have been introduced to as a young boy at Monte Cassino, the three R's.
The trivium gives us, by derivation of the word, "trivial", as we might say "ABC". These were the most elementary first steps of education, but they led on to the arts of the quadrivium and ultimately to the study of the Bible. The education that Thomas was introduced to at Monte Cassino, I'm suggesting, was the traditional medieval understanding of the relationship between secular learning and sacred learning. So he would have been instructed in the arts. These are fragments of classical thought. If we look back at the writings of Plato and Aristotle, we see arts that function so prominently through the early Middle Ages to be a very slender sample of what had been achieved in the classical Greek period. From the Dark Ages on medievalists could not look at all the writings of Plato and all the writings of Aristotle: one, they weren't just sitting on shelves, and two, they would have been in Greek.
Boethius, a contemporary of Cassiodorus, had set out to translate into Latin all of the writings of Aristotle and all the writings of Plato. This tells us something. This tells us that knowledge of Greek, which was the common language, is fading away, and if the achievement of Greece is to be passed on and understood in Europe it has to be put into the language dominant in Europe, that is Latin.
Now this project of Boethius would have been enormous under any circumstances. He was a busy politician as well as a scholar. And as it happens he did not complete very much at all, a few works of Aristotle, so that from the fifth and sixth century on through the twelfth, the name Aristotle would have been linked to a logical work such as theCategories, or the logical work On Interpretation. And that would be it. And as far as Plato went, little or nothing was known of Plato directly. There was a partial translation of the dialog of Plato's called the Timaeus, probably the least difficult dialog of Plato. But that would have been Plato. Of course through the Church Fathers Greek and Latin knowledge of ancient philosophy was gotten indirectly. Book eight for example of Saint Augustine's City of God is devoted to a sketch of philosophy.
When we talk about books we should remind ourselves that we are talking about manuscripts, that is handwritten documents, so that if a book were to be had someone was going to have to sit down and copy it out word for word. One of the things that was done in monasteries, in a room called the scriptorium, was copying manuscripts so that these could be traded with other places for works that one did not have. So you would get a gradual building up of the library holdings of a monastery by copying, trading and so forth. You can imagine the possibilities for mistakes in that kind of copying. We don't do this sort of thing any more, but if you ever did sit down and copy out something by hand you would probably find that you had skipped a sentence or that you had misspelled a word or made one kind of mistake or another. If you think of this as being copied and being copied and being copied and copied and so forth, you can see that over centuries you could get a very flawed document that professed to be, say, the Categories of Aristotle, or On Interpretation of Aristotle.
It's not until the invention of printing that we get anything like copies which are identical with the type set by the printer. But in this older fashion of disseminating learning there were mistakes and variations in manuscripts, which has led toa great scholarly task in modern times where a scholar will gather together all of the existing extant copies of a particular work and compare them and try to see which of them derives from which, if that's possible. Often the scholar will end up with six or seven or more copies of the work which don't seem to be derivative from one another. He then has to establish a critical edition: that is, what is the best reading of this work, choosing among the variations in the copies that he has. When we read Aristotle, we do it in English translation; it's done from a Greek text which was established in just this way. But there are gaps of centuries between, say, the lives of Plato and Aristotle and the oldest Greek manuscript of their work.
In the early Middle Ages the knowledge of Greek all but faded away. Boethius was competent in both languages anddid, in part at least, achieve what he undertook in translating Aristotle into Latin. Boethius also wrote an arithmetic and a work on music, and these function in the arts of the quadrivium in medieval education. My point is that there is something very conservative and traditional about medieval education from the beginning. It's as if one is looking back to a golden age and is trying to retrieve it to a degree that this is possible given the difficulties that I've already mentioned. All of this is seen in the schema that we find in the Institutions of Cassiodorus: all of this learning, this secular learning, is seen as subservient to the understanding of Scripture and of course in the monastery to the liturgical path.
Those monks who devoted their lives to the chanting of the Hours and the Liturgy of the Mass in the abbey chapel would of course have to be learned to be able to understand and appreciate these prayers that they were offering up. By and large, as you may know, the Psalms make up the Hours of the Office, as it was called, the Opus Dei, the work of God, that was the principle prayer life of the monk. The education in the monastery was aimed at the formation of these choir monks. But a few children of the nobles such as Thomas Aquinas would be admitted into a monastic school and would live a religious life while they were there, but need not be seen as candidates for membership in the order .
So the education of Thomas at Monte Cassino, we can surmise, is pretty much the same thing that had been going on from the Dark Ages, from the sixth century, in Cassiodorus. There were of course variations from school to school in terms of which of the arts was emphasized as opposed to the others, and grammar became what we would call literary criticism, so that the Latin classics would be read under the heading of grammar. It wasn't just syntax and vocabulary, but it was a matter of textual interpretation of great works of literature as well.
When Thomas went to Naples he came into a university situation where all of that was now beginning to crumble. The reason for the loss of the hegemony of the liberal arts was the arrival in Latin translation towards the end of the twelfth century and in the thirteenth century of treatises of Aristotle. These were accompanied by Arabic commentaries by men who were known as Averroes and Avicenna, and this was terribly important as we will see. If you look at some of these early texts you will see a page, and Aristotle's text will be in the middle, and then the commentary will bracket it, so that to read Aristotle originally was to read him through the lens of various commentaries.
This was an extremely important development that Thomas had to confront in his own life. But what we have to see is the excitement that was generated by the arrival of this vast new library of books -- books like the Politics of Aristotle, the Ethics of Aristotle, the Metaphysics of Aristotle, On the Soul of Aristotle. We can imagine someone saying: "Where does this fit in our schema of secular learning, the seven liberal arts?" It doesn't. There had to be a rethinking of the soul, a recognition of the soul of secular learning as represented chiefly by Aristotle and by these Arabic commentators on Aristotle. There was no way in which that could be fused into the seven liberal arts. So the conflict of secular learning, of philosophy, we might say, is remarkably expanded. And Thomas at Naples, where some of the translation was going on and many of these newly translated texts were coming into use, would have become aware of this expansion of the horizon of secular learning, and it was to characterize his art.
I mentioned that when Thomas went north to study with Saint Albert in Cologne he consolidated his knowledge of Aristotle. We can see that in monastic education he would have become acquainted with some logical writings of Aristotle. When he goes to Naples these other treatises of Aristotle are suddenly on the table and causing, as you can imagine, great intellectual excitement. When he goes to Cologne he is working with a great Dominican educator who paraphrased the whole of Aristotle -- in Latin of course -- and assimilated it in that way. At Cologne Thomas was the assistant of Albert the Great. Albert commented there on the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, and the edition that we have of Albert's commentary is said to be the work of his assistant Thomas Aquinas, that is the editing of it. He was later to write his own commentary on the Ethics, and it's interesting to compare that of Albert that he edited and his own later commentary.
When we talk about the transition from liberal arts tradition to the university it is better to think of it in terms of the University of Paris rather than of Naples. Paris was the place where Thomas was ultimately educated and where he taught, as I've mentioned, for six years, two three-year stints, as a Regent Professor in the Dominican house in Paris. The twelfth century is said to have had the great misfortune of being followed by the thirteenth century, which pretty well eclipsed it for a long time in the eyes of scholars. This has been remedied in more recent years, and the liveliness and excitement, intellectual excitement, of the twelfth century is being more and more realized. When we think of a century that begins with Saint Anselm and take it through Abelard, Hugh of Saint Victor, and John of Salisbury, and so forth, we realize that these are men who, if they didn't have to compete with such giants of the thirteenth century as Bonaventure and Thomas and Scotus and later Ockham, would have loomed larger than they do.
John of Salisbury is an interesting case. He was an Englishman who came to Paris to study in the twelfth century. Already Paris was a magnet drawing people interested in learning. They had monastic schools, the Convent of Saint Victor, home of the Augustinian Monks of Saint Victor, the order that eventually Martin Luther would belong to. They had a house in Paris and great scholars there who drew students from all over. It was on the left bank in the so called Latin Quarter, because Latin was the language of these scholars who were coming in from all kinds of countries, and the teaching and learning was done in this common language rather than in the vernacular.
There was also the cathedral school at Notre Dame. When towns began to form and when life settled down to some degree, learning shifted to the city, around the seat or the chair of the bishop, his cathedra, his cathedral church. What we had here was a reprise of liberal arts education and the study of Scripture. The cathedral school aimed at training priests for that bishop. In Paris in the twelfth century there was the cathedral school at Notre Dame on the island in the Seine, and then on the left bank you had these monastic schools. You had on the bridges of Paris little shops where people taught logic. I suppose you just leaned over the counter and took a course in logic from someone in this way. It was a very exciting time. John of Salisbury has provided us with an account of what it was like to be a student in Paris in the twelfth century, and it was indeed very exciting.
What happens as we move into the thirteenth century is that, as an organic development out of cathedral and monastic education, the university arises. The university is first of all a corporation. It's not a campus, although it was on the left bank basically. It's not a lot of buildings, it is a corporation of the masters and students of Paris. Students were seen as apprentices who would go through a more and more specified set of years of training and reach a point when they would be themselves recognized as masters of the craft. This is the origin of the university as a kind of training ground for future masters.
Now, as I've already mentioned, the hegemony of the liberal arts is disturbed by the arrival of this new learning. And the university from its very inception, from the very reception of its charter from the pope at the beginning of the thirteenth century, is a cockpit of conflict and argument as to the relationship between this new learning, Aristotle, in effect, on the one hand, and the Christian faith on the other. The liberal arts tradition had, as I mentioned, established the modus vivendi between reason and faith, between secular learning and sacred learning. All that was now exploded by the arrival of all of these new treatises and commentaries, new ideas, new suggestions as to the analysis of physical objects and the nature of the cosmos, the destiny of man, where did it all come from, and so forth.
Here you had in philosophical works by pagan authors answers to these questions that in the liberal art tradition wouldhave been put off to the study of the Bible. You would look for answers to those big questions in Scripture. Now you had, as it were, a rival teaching on these big questions, what is a human being, what is right, what is wrong, what is the purpose of human life, is death the end for a human being, how did the cosmos get here, and so forth. In theMetaphysics of Aristotle and the Physics of Aristotle and his various cosmological works you have these things discussed. And it looks as if they are rival to the views derived previously from Scripture.
So too with respect to morality. The Nicomachean Ethics, one of the first of Aristotle's books to be translated into Latin, available already in the last quarter of the twelfth century, is addressing the question of what is the purpose of human life. In the light of that purpose how do we appraise actions as good or bad? Is this something that is compatible with the Christian view of life? Are Aristotle's statements about the cosmos and the first cause of the cosmos compatible with the teachings derived from Sacred Scripture?
Of course everyone in the educational system was a clerk, was a cleric, had at least tonsure setting him off from the laity. This was one of the functions of the incorporating of the masters and students of Paris. It gave them a legal status. They were no longer to be treated simply as citizens in Paris, but they were students of the university, and you have the beginning of town-gown disputes, some of them quite bloody in the twelfth century when students went out, as students of course no longer do, to get drunk and to run up bills in taverns and get into fights. If they were students they could not be arrested by the civil authorities. They would be taken into custody and be judged by members of the university. So that corporation was a very important step for the status of the member of the university. But the more interesting thing is this intellectual conflict between, on the one hand, the Christian understanding of what life is all about and, on the other hand, this new and surprising philosophical teaching on such matters.
From the very beginning there is a wariness about it. These translations were made in Toledo in Spain as well as in other centers and then came into the centers of learning of the West. We have a translation of Averroes' commentary on the De Anima that was made at Toledo, and in the preface to it we realize that there were Jewish scholars and Muslim scholars and Christians in a team, in a translating team, and it looks as if they translated first of all into the vernacular Spanish and then into Latin. And those were the texts that entered into the educational system.
Of course the Arabs had already translated Aristotle into Arabic. So the translation was initially not from the Greek but from Arabic to perhaps vernacular Spanish then into Latin. Almost immediately after that kind of translation had begun translations were made from the original Greek texts that had survived, so they get sometimes rival translations of the same work of Aristotle. It's exciting when we look at these centers and the effort that went into producing these translations and the eagerness with which people sought to get hold of copies of them. That kind of excitement I think is very good.
Deriving from this was problem that I mentioned: how does this comport with what we believe? All of these people were clerics, all Christian believers, so this isn't some alien sort of problem that is being visited upon them, it is a problem that would have surged up in them themselves. There were restrictions at Paris in reading Aristotle, and often this is misunderstood to mean that you couldn't have a copy of Aristotle and you couldn't in the privacy of your own home, in a plain brown wrapper, say, read the Metaphysics of Aristotle. Instead, what this means is that you could not base a course, a lecture course, on the writings of Aristotle.
That prohibition was lifted. But it tells us of the concern of scholars as to the compatibility of the new learning of writings of Aristotle in all their amplitude on the one hand, and Christian learning. You might say that this is the central issue in the thirteenth century. How do we find a new modus vivendi between this expanded front of secular learning, philosophy, now, in all its amplitude? How do we decide what the relationship is between that on the one hand and Christian faith and the interpretation of that faith over the centuries that had become traditional? The central issue then that arose in the thirteenth century because of the arrival of this new learning was how does it compare with what believers believe. As I say, all the masters and students were Christian believers, so that this was their problem not somebody else's problem. They addressed it in somewhat different ways. Some felt that there was clear conflict between teachings of Aristotle and the Christian faith and consequently it was a waste of time to mull over what he had to say.
The place within the university in which the new learning, Aristotle, would have been studied and lectured on would have been the arts school. Now I mentioned that when Thomas was bound to the University of Naples he was fourteen years old. People entered the university at that age and they worked towards a Master of Arts, and they did this in a faculty, a kind of entry faculty of the university called the Faculty of Arts. The very title suggests an effort to suggest continuity with the liberal arts tradition. When one received the Master of Arts he became eligible to move into one of the higher faculties. There were three: Theology, Medicine and Law. Different universities became more famous for one of these upper faculties than for others.
When we see the emergence of the University of Paris out of those twelfth-century antecedents, the monastic school and the cathedral school at Notre Dame, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, suddenly all over Europe, and with a rapidity that is astounding, universities were established. Maps have been prepared that show these dots representing universities spreading across the map of Europe and of course into England with the formation of the Universities of Oxford and then Cambridge. This thirteenth-century phenomenon spurred out, we might say, as much by this new learning as anything else.
The arena in which this confrontation with the new learning took place would have been principally the arts college. Buttheologians like Thomas Aquinas became interested in the way in which Aristotle was being viewed by some of the Masters of Arts at the University of Paris. We can summarize the difficulty that confronted people with respect to the thought of Aristotle in terms of what were called the errors of Aristotle. The first one had to do with the origin of the world. Aristotle taught that the world had always been, that it made no sense to talk about the world as coming into being, and by way of a change. That looks to be flat out contradictory to the revelation in Genesis that in the beginning God created heaven and earth. They seem to have a contradictory opposition. Either the world is eternal or it is not. Aristotle taught it was eternal. The believer holds, on the basis of the Scripture, that it isn't. Therefore Aristotle must be wrong.
Another error had to do with the immortality of the soul. Aristotle was taken by the Arabic commentators Averroes andAvicenna to be saying, when he analyzed human intellection, that this is not a material change going on, this is an immaterial or spiritual activity. On that basis he would say that this intellect or this soul that has such an intellect cannot cease to be, cannot corrupt. Now what Averroes said Aristotle was saying was not that your soul and mine will not corrupt. It's not a matter of personal immortality, but that there is a soul somewhere, an intellect that thinks through us, without which we could not think, and that is what is immortal or incorruptible. But you and I, presumably, on this understanding, would simply cease to be entirely at death, and that would be the end of it. You can see that this is totally incompatible with Christian belief. The Christian lives his life in the certainty that he will persist in existence beyond his life, and indeed the quality of that future life depends on how he comports himself here and now in this time. So he is constantly looking ahead to his destiny beyond this life. And it's a personal one. It's not just man that will survive but you and I and all other individuals. That's the Christian belief. Aristotle, on the Averroistic interpretation, is in effect denying that. One of those views has to be right and the other wrong. The believer is holding what he holds on the basis of the authority of God revealing, therefore he rejects this philosophical proposal.
Finally a third one had to do with whether or not God knows the world. Aristotle in the twelfth book of the Metaphysicsgives a description of God as thought thinking itself. The suggestion seems to be that it would be demeaning for God to be occupied with things below him. On this basis it was taken that he didn't know what was going on in the universe, didn't want to know. It would have been demeaning for God to take note of the universe. That on the one hand, and on the other the Christian belief that his eye is on the sparrow and the very hairs of our head are numbered, we are named by our own name by God, and so forth. One of these has to be wrong.
These were the problems, among many others, that were raised by the introduction of the writings of Aristotle. In the arts faculty at Paris there were bumptious Masters of Arts who wanted to maintain what is called by historians the two truth spirit. There is a lot of dispute about this, but what they clearly seem to be saying was, it is possible to hold philosophically a certain thing to be true and to hold its opposite to be true on the basis of Christian faith. So that where you had a contradictory opposition p or not p they were saying: in philosophy p is true, and in faith or the religious believer not p is true.
This brought theologians like Thomas Aquinas into the fray with great energy. Thomas has a number of polemical works directed precisely against these interpretations. He has a little work On the Eternity of the World. He has another one On the Uniqueness of Intellect, is there only one mind that thinks through us and so forth. And what we find in Thomas is not that he sees a conflict here where others have seen one. In the case of personal immortality he disputes the Averroistic interpretation of Aristotle. You see, that isn't what that text means. You can't read the text that way. Not only in the relevant chapters in the third book of De Anima but also in the totality of Aristotle's writings that interpretation of Averroes is simply wrong. Thomas, in that little work I mentioned On the Uniqueness of Intellect, gives a textual refutation of that interpretation of Aristotle.
So what emerges from this is that there isn't a problem. Aristotle wouldn't teach something in conflict with the faith. And Thomas does much the same thing with the question of God's knowledge, and argues that what Aristotle was addressing is that God does not derive his knowledge from creatures as if they were the causes or occasions of His knowledge. And of course Thomas's creation here would be, they are because God thinks of them, and so if He wasn't thinking of them they wouldn't be there. So as an interpretation of Aristotle, Thomas would not see any big conflict here.
Eternity of the world is a much trickier one. There is no doubt that Aristotle thought that the world had always been; there is no doubt that it is Christian belief that the world had a beginning in time, that time had a beginning. In the beginning God created. What Thomas suggested here was that the eternity or non-eternity of the world is undecideable on a philosophical basis, and the only way it is decided for us is on the basis of revelation. In accepting the Bible we accept that the world had a beginning in time. Thomas's view was if we didn't have that we wouldn't know one way or the other. But that doesn't seem to address the problem whether Aristotle taught that the world had a beginning in time.Thomas would say either those are probable reasons, that is there is nothing necessary about them, or if Aristotle thought these were necessary he was just wrong.
So Thomas' reading of Aristotle is a very careful one, and we can see that it's animated by the underlying assumption that there is a complementarity between the new learning and the Christian faith. There is no incompatibility between what the human mind can learn about the world and ourselves on its own and what we have been told in Scripture, what revelation tells us. These are complementary. Sometimes there seems to be a conflict, but it's an apparent conflict, if reason is being used properly, and not a real conflict. This is a kind of a charter for the role of secular learning alongside Christian faith which is a new modus vivendi. We'll be looking at it in some more detail as we go on. This is a great achievement of Thomas, and it was done in terms of a great controversy, the Latin Averroistic controversy.
Chesterton in his little book on Saint Thomas Aquinas, The Dumb Ox, zeroes in on this as the central achievement, and rightly so. Thomas Aquinas reestablished in a very tumultuous time the complementarity of faith and reason, of secular learning and of sacred learning. We are struck by the fact that a man who was functioning as a theology teacher at Paris during his second stay there from 1269 to 1272, lecturing and writing while working on the Summa Theologiaeamong other things, is writing commentaries on twelve works of Aristotle. This has to be seen as a kind of moonlighting; this wasn't part of his task as a Regent Master of Theology. But it emphasizes or brings home to us how terribly important Thomas saw this problem to be and how important it was to be sure that there was a conflict between philosophy and the faith, not to run to the conclusion that there was such a conflict.
Of course what angered him was the suggestion of these young masters in the arts faculty, the so called Latin Averroists, followers of the Averroistic interpretation on the immortality of the soul. What angered him was the impious suggestion that God would have proposed for our acceptance as true in revelation something we could know to be false, since we could know its contradictory in philosophy to be true if the Latin Averroists were right. This is a violation of the most fundamental principle of human thinking and indeed of existence, that you can't get both sides of contradiction simultaneously true. Things cannot be and not be at the same time. This is the underpinning of that logical rule. But the Latin Averroists seem to have this insouciant notion that they could hold as true their interpretation of Aristotle, which was in conflict with the faith, and hang on to the faith as well. Thomas sees this as impious because it would be suggesting that God is saying, believe this, even though you can know the opposite is true.