Thomas Aquinas on Broadening Our Meaning of Art

In our meditations on the Via Creativa and the Via Transformativa we have been deepening and broadening our understanding of art.  To do this we must part ways from our modern culture that has often rendered the word “art” in the narrowest of ways.   As if an “artist” is some other person with lots of talent who may or may not translate it into “success” (meaning money). 

Thomas Aquinas. Painting by Fra Angelico

I have emphasized how pre-modern peoples—both indigenous and medieval—did not conceive of art and creativity with “snobbish enthusiasm” as Otto Rank put it in our meditation three days ago.  Rather, since we are all born in the image and likeness of the Creator, we are all artists creative in our depths.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), one of the greatest minds of the Middle Ages and indeed of all ages, offers an excellent example of this broad and pre-modern understanding of art.  Consider how he talks about art as virtue alongside other virtues:

People become builders by building, and harpists by playing harp. Likewise people become just or temperate or courageous by doing just actions or temperate actions or courageous actions.

Virtue, he points out, is a power that is “not in us by nature.”  We have to practice them to perfect them. 

Veterinarian Nina Griffin and animal health technician Jojo Edmister of the Public Health Command-Fort Eustis Branch examine Chuck at Langley Air Force Base, Va. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Brittany E. N. Murphy on Flickr

In response to our DM of three days ago I received this email from an artist. “Art is painful in your body, your hands get twisted by hours of painting–and years…But your soul gets meaning [about] why you are here and your miniscule offering to the Creator is well paid.  The joy is infinite like God.”

Consider this amazing passage in which Aquinas names many diverse occupations as art: 

The military art commands the art of horse riding. Some arts admit of conjecture, such as medicine, commerce, and the like. There is an art of making what is pleasant, namely, the art of cooking and the art of making perfumes. The habits of building and weaving and making music are in the soul and from the soul. But it is more accurate to say that the builder builds, and not that his art builds, though he builds through his art.

The arts of parenting and cooking, passed on through three generations. Photo by FNS Midwest on Flickr.

An art that is concerned with the end commands and makes the laws for an art concerned with means to the end. Thus, the art of civil government commands that of the military; the military commands the equestrian; and the art of navigation commands that of shipbuilding.

I just love this passage!  I love it for its broad use of the word “art.”  It justifies the engineers, business people, fools and educators we are inviting to lead us in our Daily Meditations.

Adapted from: Matthew Fox, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, p. 316.

See also: Matthew Fox, Creativity: Where the Divine and the Human Meet.

See Matthew Fox, The Reinvention of Work

Banner Image: The DC Labor Chorus sings at the DC Emancipation Day Voting Rights March Assemblance Rally in Washington, D.C., 4/16/2007. Photo by Elvert Xavier Barnes Photography, on Flickr .

Queries for Contemplation

How many times have you, like Aquinas, called art a virtue or heard art called a virtue?  What are the implications of that?

Are you as excited as I am to hear shipbuilding and horse back riding and building, weaving, cooking, medicine and commerce all called “arts”?  What are the implications of that?  What other arts do not get named for what they are—for example parenting, love-making, friendship, grandparenting, gardening, etc. etc? Art as meditation may be more present than we have been told.

Recommended Reading

Matthew Fox renders Thomas Aquinas accessible by interviewing him and thus descholasticizing him.  He also translated many of his works such as Biblical commentaries never before in English (or Italian or German of French).  He  gives Aquinas a forum so that he can be heard in our own time. He presents Thomas Aquinas entirely in his own words, but in a form designed to allow late 20th-century minds and hearts to hear him in a fresh way.  The result is exciting!

Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.

Thomas Aquinas said, “To live well is to work well,” and in this bold call for the revitalization of daily work, Fox shares his vision of a world where our personal and professional lives are celebrated in harmony–a world where the self is not sacrificed for a job but is sanctified by authentic “soul work.”

Responses are welcomed. To add your comment, please click HERE or scroll to the bottom of the page.

Share this meditation


Daily Meditations with Matthew Fox is made possible through the generosity of donors. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation

Search Meditations





Receive our daily meditations

6 thoughts on “Thomas Aquinas on Broadening Our Meaning of Art”

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Steve,
      Thank you for writing your comment in response to Matt’s meditation on broadening our meaning of art and creativity. I share your sense of liberation. For me, these meditations have brought my many interests and skills together as a life of evolving creativity instead of competing projects through which I express my talents. What I create needs to come out of the reason I am creating.

      I hope you find many artful ways to enjoy the liberation and challenges of your life and your creativity flows freely from them.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  1. Avatar

    I found deep enjoyment in the daily meditation today.
    When you first began these meditations on creativity, I found myself depressed because I judged myself as “not doing anything creative lately” (“lately”, meaning the past several months). I have been spending much of my extra time reading, meditating, enjoying the outdoors (until it got so cold), and organizing an event for my colleagues and for our Synod (I’m a Lutheran pastor). After the event with my colleagues (about a month ago), I recognized how much pleasure I received from organizing an event in which they learned, had meaningful fellowship with each other, and took time to relax and rejuvenate. I realized that for the past couple of months this WAS my creative work. It was a creation of time and fellowship and retreat. It was the art of meaningful community.
    So, I am thankful for today’s meditation which opens the field of art to such things and recognizes the many gifts we offer.

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Christine,
      What a beautiful story of your realization that leading events and creating meaningful community is your creative work. I hope you continue to honor your efforts to bring people together and open up space for their spiritual, personal, and communal growth. So many will now benefit from your new understanding of creativity and vocation. Wonderful!
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

  2. Avatar

    I have long practiced the art of making a house a home—a skill few people acknowledge as a form of art. My homes are always warm, colorful, inviting places filled with pets, good smells, and art—some created by others & some created by me. This is not an art form often recognized as such, but I find that creating & maintaining a loving home fills me with joy and reflects the energy I want to put into the world.

    1. Gail Sofia Ransom

      Dear Mary,
      Thank you for adding in the creation of an affirming and energizing home as a form of creativity. Its the kind of creativity that directly benefits many, but is often taken for granted. Here you claim that there is something sacred about the process and its gift for others. A refreshing addition to our conversation and right on point.
      Gail Sofia Ransom
      For the Daily Meditation Team

Leave a Comment

To help moderate the volume of responses, the Comment field is limited to 1500 characters (roughly 300 words), with one comment per person per day.

Please keep your comments focused on the topic of the day's Meditation.

As always, we look forward to your comments!!
The Daily Meditation Team

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Join us in meditation that supports your compassionate action

Receive Matthew Fox's Daily Meditation by subscribing below: