Aquinas, One of the Greatest Philosophers Ever?

In a “non-scientific” poll asking about the greatest philosopher in history, conducted six years ago by the BBC Radio 4 program “In Our Time,” which features academic discussions of famous people and ideas, Aquinas placed #7 overall.

It looks like Aquinas has come a long way since the time when modern historians of philosophy (e.g., Émile Bréhier) claimed that no philosophy was done in the Middle Ages (or, if it was, that it wasn’t worth remembering) and that there was a yawning chasm between the Greeks and Descartes.

Here are the top ten great philosophers according to the BBC poll results:

  1. Karl Marx
  2. David Hume
  3. Ludwig Wittgenstein
  4. Friedrich Nietzsche
  5. Plato
  6. Immanuel Kant
  7. St. Thomas Aquinas
  8. Socrates
  9. Aristotle
  10. Karl Popper 

Marx won by a landslide, receiving 27.93% of the vote. Aquinas only received 4.83% of the vote. Still, considering that this was probably a largely secular audience (not to mention non-Catholic), it is surprising that Aquinas even made the top ten. Moreover, there were a number of other philosophers nominated, who ranked lower than Aquinas. When the voting was finished, Aquinas had beat Socrates, Aristotle, Popper, Descartes, Epicurus, Heidegger, Hobbes, Kierkegaard, Mill, Russell, Sartre, Schopenhauer, and Spinoza. That’s pretty impressive for a pious primitive from the Dark Ages.

I don’t recall this poll getting much press at the time. Well, I suppose that’s not surprising. Philosophers don’t make the news much. It’s probably not unusual, then, that some non-scientific poll by the BBC about philosophers didn’t really cause a stir. So, I’ve taken it upon myself to generate a bit more press for this five-year-old poll. I imagine that the results would not be too different if the poll were taken again today.

There was also an episode on Aquinas originally broadcast by “In Our Time” on Sept. 17, 2009, with John Haldane, Martin Palmer, and Annabel Brett. You can listen to it here. It must be said, however, that Palmer and Brett are not the best guides to Aquinas. Haldane isn’t bad even if in this context his approach to Aquinas has to be introductory.

“In Our Time” generally deals with interesting topics and often has well-informed guests. It’s worth having a look at the old broadcasts in the program archive.

[A version of this post appeared last October on my now defunct blog “the end of the modern world, etc.”]