Public Debate


This work contains a series of questions and answers fielded to St. Thomas during his time at the University of Paris. These questions would have been asked in the form of a public debate. Scholars refer to this as a disputatio, Latin for “disputation.” Studying such debates enables modern audiences to understand how—and perhaps why—these questions were asked.

Disputations had become a prominent method of teaching at universities by the mid thirteenth century. They were typically formal affairs presided over by a master, who would raise a question and have his students provide potential answers or arguments in response; these would then be commented upon by the master. Aquinas served as a master of theology at the University of Paris, and thus would have presided over many disputations during his time there; he would often be required to determine the questions that would be presented at them in addition to answer them. As historians Nevitt and Davies note, these regular disputations were known as "ordinary disputations."

Aquinas believed the disputation to be one of the most effective forms of rhetoric, as demonstrated by the fact that he had his ordinary disputations published (his Quaestiones Disputatae). Indeed, Aquinas made the basic units (or articles) of his greatest work—his Summa Theologiae—dispuations in effect: each article raises a question and selected arguments and Aquinas then provides a response. Furthermore, Aquinas even believed that certain passages of the Bible took the form of disputations, such as Job's discussions with his comforters in the Book of Job. This all points towards his strong belief that disputations were central to the facilitation of understanding.

Source: Nevitt, Turner and Brian Davies. Thomas Aquinas's Quodlibetal Questions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

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