The great Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle believed that the meaning of history might be best understood as we turn our attentions to the heroes who act boldly and decisively on the stage of the world. If Carlyle was even partly right then Western culture could well be considered the tale of two men: Augustine and Aquinas.
Both men are numbered among the most brilliant and influential writers and thinkers of all time. Both men rose from obscurity to launch movements that literally changed the course of whole civilizations. Both men transcended their quiet, contemplative, and pious lifestyles to become champions of stunning intellectual and social reform. Both men are considered among the greatest of the saints of the church.
Augustine lived during the waning days of the Roman Empire and was one of the most remarkable men Africa ever produced. He studied rhetoric at the great University of Carthage in order to become a lawyer, but later gave up his plan to for a career in teaching. His study of rhetorical philosophy—with an emphasis on Pagan Greek thought—resulted in a complete renunciation of Christianity. He lived a self-confessedly debauched life—including keeping a mistress for fifteen years by whom he had a son. In pursuit of opportunities to improve his academic standing he took teaching posts—first in Rome and later in Milan. It was in Milan that he fell under the sway of the eloquent bishop Ambrose. After a long and tortured battle of the soul—described in his classic autobiography Confessions—Augustine was converted under Ambrose's ministry and was baptized.
After some two years of intensive training, he returned to Africa and established a scholastic community in Hippo. There he founded a classical school—a kind of prototype for the modern university devoted to study, writing, and the work of cultural transformation. The school was famed for its emphasis on logic, rhetoric, art, music, politics, theology, and philosophy. But it was equally recognized for the brilliance of its founder.
Soon the steadfastness, holiness, and giftedness of Augustine was recognized and he was ordained—though very much against his own objections. And a few years later he was elevated to the bishopric of the city. He was a devoted pastor, but his writing was where he made his greatest impact. During his career he wrote more than a thousand works, including 242 books. Most of these quite brilliant writings have endured the test of time. But he is probably best known for his manifesto of faith, The City of God.
According to Martin Luther, this one book “set the very course of Western Civilization.” According to John Knox, it is the very essence of “incisive Christian thought applied to the circumstances of theis poor fallen world.” When Peter Lombard compiled his Sentences, providing the Medieval world with its basic handbook of theology, he acknowledged his “supreme debt” to the “masterful work” of Augustine in City. When Gratian compiled the principle handbook of canon law, he too recognized the “vital import” of the “seminal foundations” laid by Augustine’s City. Cassiodorus and Boethius both relied heavily on Augustine’s worldview paradigm as exposited in City as well as his tripartite arx axiom methodology in establishing the Western pattern of covenantal and classical education. Anselm, Petrarch, Pascal, and Kierkegaard all counted The City of God as their first and primary intellectual influence. Indeed, this one book has had an astonishing influence on the shaping of our culture for centuries.
Thomas Aquinas was born into a well-connected Italian family—related to the Emperors Henry VI and Frederick II as well as the royal families of Aragon, Castile, and France—during the high Medieval Age. Landulph, his father, was Count of Aquino; Theodora, his mother, Countess of Teano. He showed early promise as a student and was marked by a deep and profound piety. At the university he quickly surpassed his professors and his parents hoped he might establish himself as a lawyer or diplomat. But he yielded to a call into the Dominican Order. The whole city of Naples was said to have wondered that such a noble young man should don the garb of poor friar and his family, appalled, his family had him confined two years in the fortress of San Giovanni at Rocca Secca in an effort to dissuade him from his holy intentions. He refused to relent however and finally he was released to the monastery.
In Paris and Cologne he studied under the most brilliant mind of the age, Albert Magnus. But it was not long before the wisdom of Aquinas outstripped that of even Albert. After obtaining his doctorate, Aquinas began to write—soon his remarkable mind made its mark on the world. He was nearly as prolific as Augustine, composing hundreds of works and dozens of books. But like Augustine, his reputation rests on his magnum opus, a systematic theology entitled the Summa.
Like the City of God, the Summa quickly altered the course of men and nations. Virtually every Roman Catholic theologian since Aquinas has found in the Summa all the language, categories, and philosophical frameworks for faith. G.K. Chesterton called it the “North Star of Western thought.” Hilaire Belloc called it the “loadstone of orthodoxy.” And Pope John Paul II asserted that it was an “indispensable guide to the Christian world and life view.”
Given all this, you might be tempted to think that Augustine and Aquinas were very similar men, thinking very similar thoughts. But nothing could be further from the truth.
While Augustine categorically rejected the principles of Greek philosophy—including the ideas of Plato and Aristotle—Aquinas embraced them and wove them into his Christian understanding of the world. Augustine thought in black and white; Aquinas thought in various shades of grey. Augustine drew a line through all of history—on one side was the “City of God” on the other was the “City of Man;” nearly every fact, every event, every idea, and every movement could be sorted out on one side of the divide or the other. Aquinas drew lines of distinction as well, but they were far more complex, subtle, and broad. Augustine thought in exclusive Biblical categories. Aquinas thought in inclusive philosophical categories. Augustine drew inferences from Scriptural ideas. Aquinas drew inferences from Aristotelian ideas. Philosophers and theologians have said that Augustine’s ideas were based largely on antithesis while the ideas of Aquinas were based largely on synthesis.
And never the twain shall meet.