In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Thomism

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Works and Translations
  • Sources of Aquinas’s Thought
  • The Classic Commentatorial Tradition
  • Contemporary Approaches to Aquinas
  • Comprehensive Studies of Aquinas’s Thought
  • Histories of Medieval Philosophy
  • Theology and Philosophy
  • God
  • Metaphysics
  • Nature and Human Nature
  • Knowledge
  • Thomistic Ethics
  • Goods: Ultimate and Common
  • Natural Law and Applied Ethics
  • Action Theory
  • The Life of Virtue

Medieval Studies Thomism
R.E. Houser
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 October 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0096


Thomism has at least three distinct senses. It primarily means the philosophical and theological doctrine of Br. Thomas of Aquino OP (b. 1224/1225–d. 1274). Born into the minor nobility at Roccasecca near Naples, he was first educated as a Benedictine oblate at the monastic school of Monte Cassino, then studied Arts at the newly founded University of Naples, where he encountered the philosophical thought of Aristotle and two Islamic Aristotelians—Avicenna and Averroes. Against the wishes of his family, he was drawn to the Dominicans and took the Dominican habit. He proceeded to Paris and then Cologne, studying under Albertus Magnus. In the midst of conflict between secular masters and the friars, he became Master of Theology at Paris, teaching there twice (1256–1259 and 1268–1272). The rest of his teaching career was spent in Italy. The other two senses of Thomism developed as ways of understanding this first sense of Thomism. The second sense concerns the interpretation and development of his thought by subsequent philosophers and theologians. It did not start auspiciously. In 1270 and again in 1277 the Bishop of Paris condemned certain propositions, mainly Aristotelian, some closely connected with Thomas’s doctrine. There followed attacks on Thomas, mainly by Franciscans, and defense of him, mainly by Dominicans. On 18 July 1323, Aquinas was canonized by Pope John XXII. From the 15th to the 17th century, a series of “classic” commentators explained, defended, and developed the thought of Aquinas. In late medieval universities, the Faculty of Arts usually offered two different ways to study philosophy, the via antiqua (often Aquinas) and the via moderna (nominalism). Just after the Council of Trent, on 15 April 1567 Aquinas was declared a “doctor of the Church” by the Dominican Pope Pius V, his doctrine thereby becoming identified with the magisterial teaching of the Roman Church. The French Revolution spawned “liberalism,” “socialism,” and “positivism” during the 19th century. In reaction, Pope Leo XIII initiated the third sense of Thomism, often called “neo-Thomism,” in his encyclical Aeterni patris (1879). Led by Cardinal Mercier of Louvain and Étienne Gilson of the Sorbonne and Toronto, many “subspecies” of this third sense of Thomism developed in the 20th century. Initially it looked like this third Thomism ended with Vatican Council II, but Thomism revived again during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in reaction to “postmodernism,” “secularism,” “consumerism,” and “Islamism.”

Introductory Works

Chesterton 1943, Pieper 1982, and McInerny 1990 are for beginners and written by first-rate authors. Weisheipl 1974 is a scholarly biography that concentrates on Aquinas’s doctrine. Though he familiarized himself with the latest research into Thomas’s life, Weisheipl was not inclined to make definitive judgments in this area. Torrell 1996 makes use of all the research into Aquinas’s life done since Weisheipl, especially points uncovered by the Leonine Commission in the process of editing Aquinas’s works. Torrell devotes much space to the details of Aquinas’s life, but he is careful to give a brief account of each of Aquinas’s works. Written with great clarity, the book is required reading for novice and master alike. These two biographies, then, complement each other. One can read Weisheipl for Aquinas’s doctrine and Torrell for his life. Cessario 2005 gives in brief compass a feel for the vast influence of Aquinas on Catholic thought over the centuries. It is especially useful for the second sense of Thomism, that of the “classic commentators.” The last two books are for the more advanced student. Chenu 1964 has become the classic introduction for the budding scholar of Aquinas. Even though over half a century old, it covers all the essential resources, except for those now online. It also contains some of Chenu’s most insightful interpretations of Aquinas and represents the work of the “historical” version of the third sense of Thomism, begun by Gilson. Dufeil 1972 places the reader in Paris right at the beginning of Aquinas’s career. Both Aquinas and Bonaventure were denied Chairs of Theology by the secular Masters of the University of Paris, because the friars refused to go on strike with the rest of the faculty in 1253. They were finally awarded their Chairs only after the intervention of Pope Alexander IV in 1256, and both entered into the polemics in support of the friars’ way of life. While not confined to Aquinas, Dufeil draws the best picture yet of life at the University of Paris during his time there, and during an event in which Aquinas played a major role.

  • Cessario, Romanus, OP. A Short History of Thomism. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2005.

    Cessario’s history begins with an overview of the Thomism of Aquinas and continues on with a history of the Thomism of his major commentators over the centuries.

  • Chenu, Marie-Dominique, OP. Toward Understanding Saint Thomas. Translated by A. M. Landry and D. Hughes. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1964.

    An introduction to more advanced study of Aquinas, with attention paid to the main scholarly resources. A reference book that should be on the shelf of every Thomistic scholar. Originally published as Introduction à l’étude de saint Thomas d’Aquin (Montreal and Paris: l’Institut d’Étude Médiévales, 1954).

  • Chesterton, G. K. St. Thomas Aquinas. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1943.

    Introduction to the life and thought of Aquinas, written for the layman, by one of the most famous English writers in his time. Originally published in 1933, it is a companion piece to his St. Francis of Assisi. Filled with insights and much praised by Thomists.

  • Dufeil, Michel-Marie. Guillaume de Saint-Amour et la polémique universitaire parisienne 1250–1259. Paris: J. Picard, 1972.

    A stirring, even exciting, story of the conflict between secular Masters of Theology like William of St. Amour and their opponents, who included the young friars Thomas and Bonaventure. Gives a real “feel” for Aquinas’s University of Paris.

  • McInerny, Ralph. A First Glance at St. Thomas Aquinas: A Handbook for Peeping Thomists. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990.

    Introduction for beginners by a clever writer, as the subtitle indicates.

  • Pieper, Josef. Guide to Thomas Aquinas. Translated by Richard Winston and Clara Winston. New York: Octagon, 1982.

    Introduction for beginners by an excellent writer. Even better in German. Originally published in 1962.

  • Torrell, Jean-Pierre, OP. St. Thomas Aquinas. Vol. 1, The Person and His Work. Translated by Robert Royal. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.

    This marvelous biography makes use of all the research into Aquinas’s life done since Weisheipl’s biography. Its attention to detail typifies the scholarly precision of the Fribourg Dominicans. Originally published as Initiation a Saint Thomas d’Aquin: Sa personne et son oeuvre (Fribourg, Switzerland: Editions Universitaires, 1993).

  • Weisheipl, James A., OP. Friar Thomas d’Aquino: His Life, Thought and Works. New York: Random House, 1974.

    This biography was commissioned for the seventh centenary of the death of Aquinas. It is an intellectual biography, with long portions devoted to Thomistic doctrines Weisheipl thought important.

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