The Life of Thomas Aquinas: Scholasticism and Higher Education

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By Katya Konopacki, St. Louis University

Thomas Aquinas is regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the period of medieval Scholasticism and is credited as the father of the Thomistic school of theology. He was born circa 1225 in Roccasecca, Italy, near Aquino, the youngest of eight children. At the tender age of five, he was sent to the prestigious Abbey of Monte Cassino to train with the Benedictine monks. As his family was considered lower nobility, his mother hoped he would rise to the prestigious position of abbot, bringing both wealth and prestige to his family. When he was thirteen, Aquinas was sent to study with the Benedictines at the University of Naples. It was here that he first studied Aristotle and developed a keen interest in monastic orders that emphasized a life of spiritual service sustained by begging. One such mendicant order was the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans. In 1243, Aquinas secretly joined the Dominicans, receiving his habit in 1244. Upon learning of this, Aquinas’ family was enraged and his mother actually sent his brother to kidnap him. He was held captive by his family for a year before his eventual release or escape. He returned to the Dominicans, continued his studies in Paris, and was ordained a Catholic priest in Cologne, Germany in 1250. Thomas Aquinas eventually earned his doctorate in Theology under the tutelage of Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great) and went on to teach at the University of Paris. Though he was an exemplary scholar, Aquinas’ humility led his classmates to think him unintelligent, nicknaming him the “dumb ox.” Nevertheless, he would come to dominate the realm of theology with his brilliance. As Albert the Great said, “We call this young man a dumb ox, but his bellowing in doctrine will one day resound throughout the world.”

Aquinas was a prolific writer. During his life, we wrote close to sixty works. Aquinas wrote both independent works and extensive commentaries on the works of theologians like Peter Lombard and philosophers like Aristotle.The unity of faith and reason, revealed and natural human knowledge, pervades through his writings. The most notable and also his final work was the Summa Theologiae. Written from 1265 to 1274, Aquinas’ Summa is a vast and extensive compendium of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, it was left incomplete at his death. Aquinas died at the Cistercian monastery of Fossanova, Italy in the year 1274. The legacy of his writings left behind was so influential that he was eventually elevated to the rank of Doctor of the Church. In fact, he earned the title of the “Common Doctor” due to the Church’s belief that his writings have the capacity to serve the whole Church.

The Medieval University

Understanding Thomas Aquinas’ rise to influence and renown requires seeing the greater historical context in which he lived and worked. Aquinas was a man formed within the environment of the prestigious medieval universities of Europe and as a result, his works are greatly influenced by and use the scholastic method of argumentation. The higher educational institutions known as medieval universities originated from the presence of cathedral and palace schools centuries earlier and a major influence in this process was Emperor Charlemagne. Prior to Emperor Charlemagne’s reign, higher education was mostly limited to clergy and select members of the ruling class. Cathedral schools were originally founded for the purpose of clergy’s education in translating holy texts while palace schools focused on the education of young men of the ruling class on military and court tactics. When Charlemagne later came to power, he became an advocate for learning and education, specifically through his promotion of the liberal arts. Of course, he recognized an opportunity for personal gain as well. Seeing the need for education in safeguarding the expansion of his empire, he expanded the curriculum of palace schools to include the liberal arts in their curriculum and cathedral schools later followed.

With the implementation of the liberal arts in higher education, the medieval university found its humble beginnings. Many medieval universities were subsequently founded by royalty or clergy whose reputations contributed to the prestige of the schools. As a result, towards the end of the 12th century, many of these schools began to attract gifted scholars from all over the world, rather than mostly local students. It was not uncommon for these universities to specialize in specific areas of expertise such as law or medicine. By the year 1300, about twenty-three universities were established in Europe, including the University of Paris where Aquinas spent much of his teaching career. Many of the students receiving a liberal arts education in these schools were preparing for work as clerics in the Catholic church. Thus, the schools were open to males only, save for a few wealthy women who were most-often schooled by private tutors. The males students at the medieval universities were formed in seven areas of study called the Trivium and the Quadrivium. The Trivium included grammar, rhetoric, and logic (dialectic), the latter of which Aquinas engaged extensively through his scholastic-influenced writings. The Quadrivium included arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music. Most students began their university studies between the ages of twelve and fifteen, following their rudimentary education, probably through a local parish school. All students were expected to be well-versed in Latin, as that was the language in which courses were taught.


A prominent trademark of these universities was the systematic method of study known as Scholasticism. Scholasticism was the medieval school of philosophy taught by the academics of medieval universities, most prevalent from the 12th to 16th century. Scholasticism is perhaps best known for its application within medieval Christian theology, through attempts to reconcile classical philosophers like Aristotle with Christian theology. In fact, Aquinas cited Aristotle so often in his Summa that he simply referred to him as “The Philosopher.” In the later High Scholastic period of the 14th century, the scholastic method moved beyond the realm of theology into other fields of study such as epistemology, psychology, and the philosophy of science and nature. This High Scholastic period was the time in which great minds of the Catholic church, such as Albertus Magnus (Aquinas’ mentor and teacher), Thomas Aquinas, and St. Bonaventure flourished. Scholasticism is characterized by its emphasis on dialectical reasoning or logic (the third component of the Trivium). Scholastic works examine problems from contrary points of view or objections. So, the writer sets out a proposition (usually in the form of a question) to be debated, proceeds to present arguments on both sides, answers each argument in support or opposition, and finally comes to a conclusion. Often, scholastic writers like Aquinas would use syllogisms to illustrate their arguments. The Scholastic schools had two primary methods of teaching: Lectio (reading) and Disputatio (Disputation). During lectio, the teacher reads a text aloud to students and expounds on words and ideas. In disputatio, students present a question to the teacher, wherein the teacher responds using citations from authoritative texts, followed by the students’ rebuttal, and so on. Since the scholastic method involves a robust engagement with opposing points of view, students at medieval universities were expected to have a thorough knowledge of the ideas of previous authorities and be able to recall those ideas in debate. Students were most commonly tested through oral debate, demonstrating their mastery of the material through dialect with their peers and professors. Throughout Aquinas’ writings, one can clearly see the influence of scholasticism which he had experienced during his education at the medieval university.

Aquinas and Knowledge

Aquinas combined his experience in higher education with the method of scholasticism to form a robust Philosophy of Education. In it, Aquinas does not focus his attention on discussing matters of faculty, curriculum, or students. Rather, he seeks to answer two main questions, “What is knowledge and how is it acquired?” In Question 84, article 6 of the Prima pars of Thomas’ Summa Theologiae, he asks, “Whether intellectual knowledge is derived from sensible things?”Ultimately, Aquinas argues that knowledge begins through sensory perceptions, when our active intellect abstracts a concept from an image perceived by the senses. He cites his influence, Aristotle, in the sed contra “On the contrary, The Philosopher says that the principle of knowledge is in the senses.”[1] Thus, the acquisition of knowledge depends upon one’s willingness and/or ability to work with sense data. Here, he distinguishes between believing (fides) and knowing (scientia). When Aquinas refers to knowledge, he is referring to scientia. This is not just knowing what something is, but the how and why it is. Brian Davies, O.P. reaffirms this in his scholarly essay, “Aquinas and Catholic Universities.” He says, “Assenting to truths is not enough for knowledge. His view is that one knows when one understands why propositions to which one assents are true. And this understanding is, he argues, affected by something internal to knowers.”[2] So, sensory perceptions put us in touch with reality, but being able to know depends on internal and God-given mechanisms.

To be clear, Aquinas does believe that there are limitations to human understanding. Some things, no matter the competence of the teacher or brilliance of the student, cannot be known and understood without the revelation of God. As Christians, we profess truths of the Christian faith in the Nicene Creed. Yet, Aquinas believes we cannot, in this life at least, know that any of these articles are true, at minimum in the context of scientia. Yet, it matters that we believe them. Here lies the boldness of Aquinas’ claim on human understanding. Some truths cannot ever be fully knowable to mankind, yet they must be taught anyways. These are the core teachings dependent on belief called sacra doctrina, which Aquinas spent much of his life teaching. As Davies explains, “Some people have the task of formally seeking to present to others the content of Christian creeds. This content he refers to as sacra doctrina (holy teaching). And he clearly thinks that sacra doctrina is something teachable. Indeed, he takes the teaching of sacra doctrina to be the highest form of teaching.”[3] However, the teaching of sacra doctrina is begun through the revelation of the omniscient God and perpetuated through lower messengers.  Aquinas’ hierarchical approach to education is contained in Disputed Questions on Truth, Q.11 titled, “The Teacher” when he asks, “Can a man or only God teach and be called a teacher?”[4] In short, he concludes that the truths which cannot be known to mankind alone must be taught by the one who knows ─ God. Then, teachers pass on those teachings. Aquinas most beautifully proclaimed in 1256, during one of his lectures in Paris, “The king of the heavens, the Lord, established this law from all eternity, that the gifts of his providence should reach what is lowest by way of things that are in between. The minds of teachers are watered by the things that are above in the wisdom of God, and by their ministry the light of divine wisdom flows down into the minds of students.”

Philosophy of Education

If Aquinas asserts that knowledge comes from within, it follows that it cannot be injected or implanted within a person. No one can cause another to know. However, others may help another to acquire knowledge. This acquisition of knowledge is education, occurring through the process of teaching and learning. What then, should those who seek to educate and learn be like? Aquinas gives three ways in which teachers can help others to know by drawing out what is already within the student. First, they can train another to speak. Aquinas believes that language consists in conventional signs and symbols and is a tool by which people communicate with one another. So, one can grow in knowledge through being taught how to converse. Through the ability to converse, one learns to communicate ideas and principles, objections and questions. Secondly, teachers can draw one’s attention to the difference between good and bad arguments. If knowledge is expressed by a valid deductive argument with true premises, then a teacher can nudge someone towards proper reasoning by drawing their attention to fallacious arguments so the student can learn to see them for themselves. Finally, teachers can help speed up the process of research within their students. Coming to know something always involves coming to see for oneself, otherwise known as research. Aquinas believes that some teachers have already boldly gone where others have not. Teachers can assist their students by helping them, in a sense, retrace their steps. As Davies summarizes, Aquinas’ message to teachers is “While recognizing that nobody can cause another person to know, also recognize that one can help people to know by training them in certain ways and by presenting them with what can lead them to know on their own.”[5]

Fortunately, Aquinas gives practical examples of both good and bad teaching practices in his Summa. These can serve as guides for those who seek to teach well and as such, are worth briefly mentioning here. Aquinas advises teachers to avoid useless questions, write books with due regard for scientific order, and avoid repetitions. On the other hand, Aquinas gives three goals toward which teachers should strive: stability, clearness, and purity of intention. Teachers must never deviate from the truth, they must teach without obscurity, and they should always seek God’s glory and not their own. In the end, Aquinas holds that education is not a morally neutral activity. The acquisition of good desires is a necessary prerequisite for good teaching and learning. In layman’s terms, what one ends up learning depends a lot on the sort of person one is to start with. Similarly, an excellent teacher is one who obtains and exercises good desires. In the end, anyone involved in study, whether teacher or student, will only be truly excellent if they are personally drawn to that which is truly good and excellent in their field of study.

A Lasting Legacy

The writings of Aquinas are timeless in their emphasis on education as a valuable and essential tool for the betterment of humanity. Patrick Quinn translates this beautifully in his “Aquinas’s Views on Teaching.” For Quinn, Aquinas’ “respect for teaching as a human way of life is also undoubtedly linked to his perception of its function in assisting the human mind to function more effectively and above all, directing and encouraging it on the path to truth.”[6] It is as though the goodness of a society can be measured by the excellence of its teachers, in their capacity to enlighten the human mind and especially, their ability to point all things back to the Creator, the ultimate source of Truth. Thomas Aquinas is himself an example of a teacher who has boldly gone before others and modeled the very definition of an excellent teacher of which he wrote.


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[1] Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologiae, trans. Fathers of English Dominican Province,  (1920; New Advent, 2008): I.lxxxiv.6, sed contra, accessed online at

[2] Davies, O.P., Brian, “Aquinas and Catholic Universities,” New Blackfriars 86, no. 1003 (2005): 277.

[3] Ibid, 282.

[4] Aquinas, Thomas, Disputed Questions on Truth (De Veritate), trans. James V. McGlynn, S.J, (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953): Q.11, art.1, accessed online

[5] Davies, O.P., Brian, “Aquinas and Catholic Universities,” New Blackfriars 86, no. 1003 (Hobken: Wiley, 2005): 279.

[6] Quinn, Patrick, “Aquinas’s Views on Teaching,” New Blackfriars 82, no. 961 (2005): 119.

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