Did St. Thomas know Greek?
The two calumnies most often heard against the Angelic Doctor are that he denied the Immaculate Conception (a charge rejected by many learned theologians, and, at least, not accepted by many others), and that he knew no Greek. The latter finds its sole support in the fact that when St. Thomas required a copy of the works of the Stagyrite in Latin, for use at Paris where he was studying and teaching, he commissioned his fellow Dominican, William of Moerbeke, to make a new translation direct from the Greek. The reason for the request was that the copies of Aristotle then in circulation had originated in Spain, from the Arabic schools of the rationalist Averroes. Aristotle, when passed through the dark glass of Averroes' anti-Christian mind, was the source of numerous philosophical and theological errors. St. Thomas, however, familiar with Boethius, St. Isidore, and St. Albert the Great, all of whom had presented the true system of Aristotle, knew that the Stagyrite was far from the pantheism and rationalism of Averroes. Aquinas described the Moor as "not so much a Peripatetic as a perverter of Peripatetic philosophy." (Non tam fuit Peripateticus quam peripateticae philosophiae depravator).
Hence his desire for a "clean" copy of Aristotle. The question, then: can the fact that the Angelic Doctor requested William of Moerbeke to make the desired translation be taken as evidence that St. Thomas himself was ignorant of Greek?
A.T. Drane, in her "Christian Schools and Scholars,"1 mentions in reference to this that St. Thomas "himself understood the language well enough to criticise his friend's version." Evidently this scholar knew that St. Thomas did not receive the work of William of Moerbeke uncritically, but actually worked on the text himself. This fact is sufficient to destroy completely the claim that St. Thomas knew no Greek, and in fact it is proof that St. Thomas's Greek was very good indeed. For we are aware of the intense humility of the saint, and nothing could be less likely than that he would have dared to indulge in criticism of a translation whilst he was not confident of his own knowledge of its original language.
The lengths to which the enemies of St. Thomas are prepared to go in a vain attempt to undermine his authority are but new proofs of the fact mentioned by Pope Pius XI, "It is...clear why Modernists are so amply justified in fearing no Doctor of the Church so much as Thomas Aquinas."2
1. A.T. Drane, "Christian Schools and Scholars (London, 1881), p. 441, quoted by D.J. Kennedy, O.P, in "St. Thomas Aquinas and Mediaeval Philosophy" The Encyclopedia Press, Inc., (New York, 1919).
2. Pius XI, Studiorum Ducem, June 29, 1923.