Thomas Aquinas was born around the year 1225 into a wealthy family of nobility in Italy. As a younger son of a large Catholic family, Thomas was encouraged to enter religious life at an early age, but in line with his family’s relative prestige in the region, they expected that he would enter the Benedictine order and eventually assume the leadership of a wealthy monastery overseen by his uncle.
Thomas began study and preparation for this work at his uncle’s monastery when he was only five years old, but when war approached the monastery in 1239, his family moved the teenaged Thomas to Naples, when he continued his education at a new type of institution that was just emerging in Europe for the first time: the university. Thomas was delighted with the opportunities that the university offered him. He encountered works, not just of Catholic and European scholars, but also of influential Jewish and Islamic thinkers, as well as those of the newly re-discovered Aristotle. In all this, Thomas reveals the rich potential of a university education: he learned the most by studying in areas he had not expected to find, and his thought was challenged by different disciplines and cultures, causing him to see the world and his own purpose in new ways.
Even more important to the Catholic intellectual tradition is Thomas’ unwavering commitment to demonstrate the compatibility between faith and reason. Thomas believed that reason and philosophy, when properly understood, can only complement and confirm what is known by faith through revelation. All truth is one, Thomas was certain, and so the university became not just a place of knowledge but a place in which knowledge could lead one to better understand both the world and God.
In his writings and his work, Thomas reveals the lifelong process of bringing together his love of God, his service to the Church, and his study of philosophy. As a preacher and teacher at many of the great educational institutions and new universities of Europe, he helped to shape Catholic thought and the ideal of the university for centuries to come.
Thomas Aquinas died in March 1274, leaving a legacy that in some way has touched every university teacher and student after him.