“[I]t is hard to understand how scandal could come from this person, so unromantic, fat, and slow, who at school took notes in silence, looked as if he weren't understanding anything, and was teased by his companions. And, in the monastery, as he sat at the table on his double stool (they had to saw off the central arm to make room for him) the playful monks shouted to him that outside there was an ass flying and he ran to see, while the others split their sides (mendicant friars, as is well known, had simple tastes); and Thomas (who was no fool) said that to him a flying ass had seemed more likely than a monk who would tell a falsehood, and the other friars were insulted.”—Umberto Eco, “In Praise of St. Thomas,” in Travels in Hyperreality: Essays (1986)
Have you ever read a piece whose first few sentences left an extraordinary impression on you? Such was my experience 25 years ago, when I read this essay by bestselling Name of the Rose novelist Umberto Eco in the Autumn 1986 issue of The Wilson Quarterly. The vivid opening in question went like this:
“The worst thing that happened to Thomas Aquinas in the course of his career was not his death, on March 7, 1274, in Fossanova, when he was barely 49, and, fat as he was, the monks were unable to carry his body down the stairs.”
Well! Let me tell you, that’s not the kind of anecdote I would have been likely to hear during 12 years of parochial school. More’s the pity, I think. It would have helped many a student, then and now, to know that the greatest scholar-saint of the Middle Ages carried on his own (ultimately losing) battle with gluttony, but that somehow he’d endured to achieve his staggering life work, Summa Theologica.
The Eco quote above hints at the reputation that St. Thomas Aquinas, whose feast day is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church today, acquired in his early years as “the dumb ox.” There’s a danger, when such rich anecdotes are employed, that the reader will dwell on that eccentric little story to the exclusion of all else.
But Eco knows, from his years of lecturing on semiotics at the University of Bologna, that such stories also hook readers as they grapple with an important argument of the author’s: “Within Thomas’ theological architecture you understand why man knows things, why his body is made in a certain way, why he has to examine facts and opinions to make a decision, and resolve contradictions without concealing them, trying to reconcile them openly.” Reacting to the cross-currents of his time--surging Islam, renewed interest in Greek philosophy--Thomas succeeded in overturning old Church strictures against Aristotle, while forging a solid theological synthesis that has withstood constant assaults across the centuries.
In other words, as his age experienced the first whiffs of the material world, Thomas—not a heretic or revolutionary, Eco agreed, but a “concordian”—“simply gave the church a doctrinal system that put her in agreement with the natural world.”