Augustine, Aquinas, Plato, and Aristotle

Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., Ph.D.

It’s typically held that Augustine was kind of based upon or focused his teaching on Plato, versus Aquinas, who based his on Aristotle. Did that put them in conflict?

Well, actually poor St. Augustine didn’t have really any knowledge of Aristotelian works, because remember, Aristotle’s works were really like class notes, very very well-done class notes of his lectures, because when the libraries of Alexandria burned down, essentially these works kind of either were burned or lost.

And what happened was the class notes though of the students of Aristotle, they were still around, and of course Aristotle had edited some of them.

So these works were kind of in the Middle East, and they were well-known but they were not known in Europe, and of course Saint Augustine knew the works of Plato.

So when St. Thomas Aquinas comes along, this guy who is really a remarkable intellect, but also a remarkable memory, he is literally absorbing the entire Platonic tradition, the Neoplatonic tradition from St. Augustine and Boethius, all the Neoplatonists.

And he’s also absorbing the whole Aristotelian tradition, because of course it had come up from the Middle East, via the Crusaders, up into Thomas Aquinas’ Paris, and of course he is able to comment on the works of Aristotle and of course he is the one who does the great synthesis, the great blending of both the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions, though the Aristotelian tradition, being an empirically-grounded one, is the one that is dominant in St. Thomas.

So he doesn’t ignore the Platonic one, but he is more grounded in the Aristotelian one. He’s not simply an Aristotelian.


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