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« Das Ehepaar | Main | Historia romana »
Thursday
Mar292012

St. Thomas Aquinas

Look at the world and you will see two currents, like tides peeling off in opposite directions.  On one side, science and selfishness have decided that we are nothing but mammals and have informed us that we should plan accordingly.  On the other, those who believe in their religion to the point of hating all others have assembled themselves by the millions, often in dedicated resistance to the smug atheist nonsense that masquerades as enlightenment but is simply everlasting darkness.  But both of these streams are sad and mistaken.  They are mistaken because life is neither a link on a billion-year chain of death nor death's eager anticipation; they are sad because something inside of them, a squeak or voice however faint, occasionally speaks to them about the positive acceptance of life.  Not the acceptance of life of the Superman who, in his puerile fantasies, hates God for his fate like a teenager hates acne and awkwardness and champions a life of defiance.  But acceptance of life in its unending beauty and the knowledge that it is but a precursor.  And there was no one who valued life and its aftermath more than the subject of this book.

How much is really known of Aquinas's life we will not be able to gauge from Chesterton's work.  That is to say, while the book is nominally a biography, it is more properly termed an essay.  What we can say with assuredness that it isn't is a hagiography.  The subject may involve, at times, one brilliant man's earthly existence that was relatively short, even by the tempered expectations of the thirteenth century.  But it certainly does not involve the theology of that man.  Catholic saints, as Chesterton points out in his habitually careful apologetics, tend to have exactly the same type of theology:

Because St. Thomas was a unique and striking philosopher, it is almost unavoidable that this book should be merely, or mainly, a sketch of his philosophy.  It cannot be, and does not pretend to be, a sketch of his theology.  But this is because the theology of a saint is simply the theism of a saint; or rather the theism of all saints.  It is less individual, but it is much more intense.

Without contradicting Chesterton – something I am obliged to do on the very rarest of occasions – I wonder whether this is really true.   I wonder whether a saint who is taught the ways of the Cross probably in his earliest youth, who augments his faith like armor in clashes with jackal-like sceptics and blasphemers, who is confronted with the sins of his Church – which are legion because the Church is made of men – truly sees the most important facet of his life in precisely or almost precisely the way all saints are said to have seen it at all times.  As questionable as this assertion may be, it is the method by which we may sunder theology, which requires a great deal of background explanation that would devour such a slim tome, from philosophy, which, as we know, can even reveal itself on a parchment inside a baked cookie.  Thus if we examine Saint Thomas's philosophy we may get a sense of why people devote years to this work (I have read much of it, but am no completist); and yet we note the title of the Summa, one of man's greatest triumphs of thought and faith, and replace it on the shelf with Tillich, Augustine, and Duns Scotus.  There is also the small matter of the life of Aquinas, the life he would so love, the daily existence brimming with privileges that he forsook (he was a not-distant cousin of none other than this Emperor), and the taciturn pensiveness that would earn him the nickname, "The Dumb Ox."  It seems impossible to cleave this life from either his theology or philosophy; they form, in their neat little way, a trinity of their own, although Aquinas would not agree with such an asseveration as much as not bother to consider it for too long.  In fact, he did bother to consider many things for too long.  But one thing which was under constant consideration was the splendor of God's green earth, blue sky and upright, rational mammals who, for better or worse, thought themselves created in His own image.  And so we have, according to Chesterton, Aquinas's most relevant accomplishment as far as the average person is concerned: that reason, unadulterated and ecstatic reason, can be trusted.

Reason remains a wicked word, because for the man of learning it is a shibboleth and for the man of experience it is a barrier.  Philosophy, we have heard so many times and not incorrectly, is a luxury of the rich.  Reason is not what propels the everyday man on his everyday routine; in many ways, what propels him is faith, but that observation has produced its own library of apologists.  What Aquinas did was move away from the abstraction of religion and move towards the concretization of religion, specifically, of a Catholic God.  If the senses are from God, then there is no reason to doubt them, for the world which they relay is as real as Heaven and the Crucifixion and Hell.  But what sensing something means has befuddled philosophers from the very beginning.  Aquinas makes things radically simple:

Our first sense of fact is a fact; [one] cannot go back on it without falsehood.  But when we come to look at the fact or facts, as we know them, we observe that they have a rather queer character; which has made many moderns grow strangely and restlessly sceptical about them.  For instance they are largely in a state of change, from being one thing to being another; or their qualities are relative to other things; or they appear to move incessantly; or they appear to vanish entirely .... There is no doubt about the being of being, even if it does sometimes look like becoming; that is because what we see is not the fullness of being .... Most thinkers, on realizing the apparent mutability of being, have really forgotten their own realization of the being, and believed only in the mutability .... While they describe a change which is really a change in nothing, [Aquinas] describes a changelessness which includes the changes of everything.  Things change because they are not complete; but their reality can only be explained as part of something that is complete.  It is God.

At first glance, the last seventeen words may seem like gigantic leaps from the steady logic of the sentences preceding; upon rereading the entire passage, greater sense emerges; but as is often the case with the tenets of genius, the truth of these statements becomes upon reflection well-nigh undeniable.  I cannot say whether atheists and other sceptics who study science for a dozen years and conclude that protons and neutrons and black holes and red dwarfs must be the handiwork of chance because everything is chance – including, therefore, their own conclusions – really think of a Christian god as an "old king" (to use Chesterton's phrasing).  An old king that sits, in his falsehood, in the corner of a shallow sky that now we all know stretches towards infinity, and deludes us in his non-existence.  Aquinas's lifelong insistence upon arguing on his opponent's terms is fine if the opponent is knowledgeable but wrong.  But we are facing a situation in which the opponent is both ignorant and wrong.  God, if He exists, is everything ("the alpha and omega" seems inappropriate and miniscule) and we play by the rules He has installed.  He is not the same as a planet or a lost continent or a loch-dwelling creature – such are the terms, inter alia, of the scientist.  He is or He isn't; and reason continually whispers to billions of people that He most certainly is.

Aquinas died suddenly and young.  Like Chesterton he was a big and tall man, and a cursory inspection of him – never mind that he was a monk and thus wholly uninterested in his personal appearance – would have judged him an oaf.  The moniker the Dumb Ox, along with the Schoolman, Doctor Angelicus, Doctor Communis, and Doctor Universalis, suggests that the impression of Thomas the man has been refracted necessarily through sympathetic and unsympathetic historians, but also through the vivacity of his ideas.  I understand Aquinas in a very different way from how I understand Kant and Bergson – in my opinion, the three greatest philosophical geniuses of the last two millennia – but since all three of them are, with the odd dark passage, perfectly lucid, they sit enshrined in the pantheon of my mind.  Kant gave us morality (our future); Bergson gave us memory (our past); and Aquinas, in his unusual path, gave us sensation, perception, life itself, our present.  And our past, present and future, along with Something much more profound and terrifying, are the beginning.  But they and that Something are not the end. 

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