“It is necessary to call into council the views of our predecessors, in order that we may profit by whatever is sound in their thought and avoid their errors,” Aristotle is quoted as once saying.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, a student of Aristotle and a Dominican friar in the 13th century, took this advice to heart. And so should we—says a student of Aquinas.
Dr. Peter Redpath has studied the works of Aquinas for more than 50 years, even writing his dissertation on the saint known as the “Angelic Doctor.” He taught philosophy at St. John’s University in New York from 1970 until 2011.
“St. Thomas Aquinas was an organizational genius. He looked at everything as an organization,” Dr. Redpath told The Cardinal Newman Society in an interview on April 8.
Dr. Redpath now works as the Rector of the Adler-Aquinas Institute, which is chiefly an online, distance education endeavor that introduces undergraduate and graduate students to the “treasures of Christian culture, in the context of the great ideas contained in the great books of Western civilization.”
Simply saying that Aquinas had great ideas about leadership would be an understatement. According to Dr. Repath, his impact is “enormous.”
Aquinas would ask, “What holds an organization together and what breaks it apart?” because “every substance for St. Thomas is a composite whole,” according to Dr. Redpath.
“If you want an operational organization, the kind that philosophers study,” Dr. Redpath continued, “Then you’re interested in looking at how that organization is put together and taken apart—you’re interested in analysis and synthesis.”
This type of thinking will take place this summer at a seminar hosted by The Catholic Education Foundation on “Creating Young Catholic Leaders” in New York. Open to rising high school juniors and seniors at Catholic high schools across the country, the seminar will explore “St. Thomas’s teaching about the nature of leadership and organizations and how to manage them as a truly great leader.”
Dr. Redpath pointed out that great leaders are aware of the mission, which is crucial to the functioning of the organization. He related:
All members of the organization need to know the aim, because the aim is present in them in the beginning… Because organizations grow out of a multitude… The only way a multitude can be transformed from being a multitude into being parts of a whole is having certain qualities that enable the multitude to communicate and cooperate with one another.
…Everyone who is in an organization is somewhat of a leader. But the people who are most fully possessed of the qualities that need to be possessed within an organization to hold it together and to achieve the completion of that single act that they are all cooperating to execute, that person most fully possesses the aim.
Sometimes that person isn’t the CEO of an organization, sometimes that person is a drill sergeant—you can have a figurehead, but the real organizer is this person who knows the organizational aim—the aim of the whole—what they’re all cooperating to do most fully—and can communicate that to the rest of the members of the organization. The organizational leader needs to understand first of all what is being communicated—to put it in modern terms, you have to have a mission statement, you have to have a strategic plan. You have to be able to communicate that strategic plan or mission statement to members of the organization.
In order to effectively communicate a strategic plan or mission statement to other members of the organization, it is useful to have an understanding of the human person. Dr. Redpath explained:
You have to understand the psychology of the human person that facilitates his or her ability to take direction and give direction. This depends on the psychology of the human person. St. Thomas Aquinas has got this incredible analysis of the human faculties and the way they operate, as well as the human passions or emotions, which virtually no one studies… I find it mind boggling that they ignore it because there are two chief emotions that people use that incline them to be motivated toward something or away from something—and that’s love and hope. If you find out what people like and you find out what they hope for, more than anything else, you find out how to motivate them—to motivate them positively or negatively. All of the emotions are influenced by the way you are disposed to think. As Aristotle says, as a person is disposed to think, so a person is disposed to choose.
“Not only does St. Thomas offer us a brilliant analysis of organizations and the nature of science,” Dr. Redpath said, “But he also provides a brilliant analysis of the human person, which introduces a theological element into his teaching.”
Indeed, in speaking of Aquinas, Pope John XXII, said that “his life was saintly and his doctrine could only be miraculous … because he enlightened the church more than all the other doctors. By the use of his works a man could profit more in one year than if he studies the doctrine of others for his whole life.”
Aquinas was named a Doctor of the Church by Pope St. Pius V, and Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Aeterni Patris emphasized the eminent importance of the writings of the Angelic Doctor for the Church. He is quoted more than 61 times in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
In addition to teaching us about leadership, Aquinas is a great example of a leader himself, Dr. Redpath explains.
One of the two most recent leading biographers of Aquinas told Dr. Redpath that he believes the saint memorized the Old and New Testaments in one year while held in captivity in the family castle. Fr. Weisheipl also told him that St. Thomas would, in the last couple years of his life, dictate different works to three or four different secretaries at once.
St. Thomas Aquinas’ “intellectual, theological leadership is unparalleled,’ Dr.Redpath concluded.
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