CwtC Session 6: Aquinas and the Medieval Synthesis

Wednesday, November 18:

When Thomas Aquinas was writing in the 13th century, Aristotle had only recently re-entered the Western consciousness, having been lost and preserved only in the Arab world up to that point.  Medieval thinkers, then, tried to reconcile these newly rediscovered ideas with Christian doctrine that had meanwhile been developing throughout the previous decades — that’s what is meant by the phrase “Medieval Synthesis”.

Aquinas took Aristotle’s means of organizing different classes of things by distinction and applied it to faith and reason.  He wanted to account for different ways of knowing, and not be simplistic or reductionist in his view of the world.  Aquinas believed that these different types of learning, or sciences, were all valid forms of knowing.  He did put them in a hierarchy, though, with theology being the highest “science” because it alone allows us to know the highest object, God.

This made him a little different from previous Christian philosophers such as Anselm, who regarded knowledge not as something that went hand in hand with faith, but was rather a “reward” of faith — summarized by his saying credo ut intellegam “I believe so that I may understand”.

We read excerpts from Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles  and his Summa Theologica.  The former outlines three ways Aquinas has found to know God:

  1. The way up: learning about the nature of God through lower creatures
  2. The way down: learning about creation through its Creator
  3. Direct vision of divine essence: possible only in heaven

The Summa Theologica contains Aquinas’s five ways to prove the existence of God:

  1. The First Way: Argument from Motion
  2. The Second Way: Argument from Efficient Causes
  3. The Third Way: Argument from Possibility and Necessity
  4. The Fourth Way: Argument from Gradation of Being
  5. The Fifth Way: Argument from Design

Join us in the spring as we continue tracking the development of natural philosophy through the years up to present day.  Dr. Kane quipped that the title for spring 2016 could be “Natural Philosophy: Galileo to Google”.

If you have any questions about Coffee with the Classics at the University of Pennsylvania, feel free to email Katie Becker at kbec @


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