“The Dumb Ox”—that was the name given by his college classmates to the heavy, quiet, and serious lad from the Count of Aquino’s family. They might never have guessed that the Ox would produce eighteen huge volumes of theology, nor that the theological system he constructed would become an official theology of Catholicism.

The greatest theologian of the Middle Ages was born about 1225 to a wealthy and noble family. At age 5, the pudgy boy was sent to the school at the nearby monastery of Monte Cassino (the community founded by Benedict seven hundred years earlier). At age 14, Thomas went to the University of Naples, where his Dominican teacher so impressed him that Thomas decided he, too, would join the new, study-oriented Dominican order.

His family fiercely opposed the decision (apparently wanting him to become an influential and financially secure abbot or archbishop rather than take a friar’s vow of poverty). Thomas’s brothers kidnapped him and confined him for fifteen months; his family tempted him with a prostitute and an offer to buy him the post of Archbishop of Naples.

All attempts failed, and Thomas went to Paris, medieval Europe’s center of theological study. While there he fell under the spell of the famous teacher Albertus Magnus, also known as Albert the Great.

Thomas’s Educational Climate

In medieval Europe, the idea of “secular education” had not occurred to anyone. All learning took place under the eye of the church, and theology reigned supreme in the sciences. Yet Thomas lived in a time when nonChristian philosophers were stirring the minds of many thinkers. Aristotle the Greek, Averroes the Muslim, Maimonides the Jew—their (and others’) works were being translated into Latin. Scholars were fascinated particularly ...

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