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A philosopher opposing eurocentrism and fake news

March 10, 2024

The Christian philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, who died 750 years ago, radically opposed spreading misinformation. His wisdom offers words of warning for the present day.

Painting depicting Saint Thomas Aquinas by Antoni Viladomat (1678-1755) Catalonian painter in the Baroque style
Saint Thomas Aquinas' wisdom is still applicable todayImage: United Archives/IMAGO

St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican priest, is regarded as one of Christian theology's greatest thinkers. He was once regarded as a man of extensive works, profound ideas, and as a synthesizer of theology.

Medieval thought? Isn't that just a thing of the past?

Certainly not, says Andreas Speer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Cologne. The 66-year-old believes that the contributions of Thomas Aquinas are valuable to current debates because of his lucid rhetoric and his explicit rejection of misinformation.

Speer also points to the medieval philosopher's broad perspective: "The philosophy around the turn of the first millennium, what we now call the Middle Ages, was basically a reflection of the world around the Mediterranean. It was multilingual, it was multiethnic, it was multireligious," Speer told DW.

Who was Thomas Aquinas?

Thomas Aquinas was born the son of nobility in the castle of Roccasecca, a good 120 kilometers southeast of Rome, in early 1225. As was common at the time, his parents were determined to give their son a good education and a career, preferably at the important monastery of Montecassino. But Aquinas prevailed against their wishes and became a Dominican friar, preferring to live the radical life of a mendicant monk. He wanted, according to Speer, a "return to a radical Christian way of life."

D 0603 Thomas AquinasNEU

However, Aquinas ventured out from the places in Bologna and Naples where he studied into the emerging academic world. He moved to Paris, studied at the relatively new, but already highly respected university, and then went on to Cologne in 1248 with Albert von Launingen, who later became famous as Albertus Magnus (around 1200-1280). He soon became an academic teacher himself, teaching in Paris as the first professor of his order and then in Rome and Naples. According to Speer, Aquinas became what is today known as an intellectual.

Thomas has been regarded as a star of theological thought, even into the 20th century. His most famous work, the unfinished Summa Theologica, has served as a blueprint for much Christian theology and shaped the thinking of the Catholic Church well into the modern era.

'Think first, then talk!'

Even though the spirit of the Enlightenment has since replaced Aquinas' ideas, philosopher Speer identifies many things that continue to have an effect today. Even in our age of short, snappy messages, says Speer, Aquinas could still use the idiom of social media: "Be precise, dare to think! And: Think first, then talk!"

"With the precision of his thought, Thomas perfected the discussion style of his time. He often formulated his ideas in a way that was both complex and intelligent, but also very succinct, almost TikTok-length," says philosopher Speer.

He regards this great scholar of the Middle Ages, who set high standards for reason, as a critical voice on the debate formats of our modern media world and the common political debates that are so dominated by sound bites: "He would urge intellectual discipline, emphasize rational and accurate language," says Speer. "Aquinas would certainly be pretty disappointed with the kind of debates we have today."

"When it comes to fake news," says Speer, "Aquinas would be extremely critical. Anyone who deliberately lies and spreads false information is basically at odds with human reason. Because in doing so, reason would be contradicting itself. For him, this is one of the worst offenses a person can commit."

Project Enlightenment - Where does responsibility begin?

On Aquinas' anniversary, there is one thing that Speer emphasizes in particular: the expansiveness of his thought. In the thirteenth century, the ideas of the long-forgotten Greek philosopher Aristotle(384-322 B.C.) were suddenly on everyone's lips.

'Europe is not the center of the world'

Great Muslim and Jewish scholars from Andalusia, in what is now Spain and North Africa, enriched the academic world with Aristotle's ideas. Thomas tapped into this great tradition.

"It was the great Arab and Jewish thinkers of his time who opened him up to the world, made him look beyond Europe," says Speer. Thomas also knew "that Europe was not the center of the world."

At a time when " Europe is walling itself off, this could all encourage us to rethink and to understand what global thinking really means," Speer says.

This article was originally written in German.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C