CHESTERTON-St Thomas Aquinas
St Thomas Aquinas
Author: G. K. Chesterton
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A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook
Title: St. Thomas Aquinas
Author: G. K. Chesterton
This book makes no pretence to be anything but a popular sketch
of a great historical character who ought to be more popular.
Its aim will be achieved, if it leads those who have hardly even
heard of St. Thomas Aquinas to read about him in better books.
But from this necessary limitation certain consequences follow,
which should perhaps be allowed for from the start.
First, it follows that the tale is told very largely to those who are
not of the communion of St. Thomas; and who may be interested in him
as I might be in Confucius or Mahomet. Yet, on the other hand,
the very need of presenting a clean-cut outline involved its cutting
into other outlines of thought, among those who may think differently.
If I write a sketch of Nelson mainly for foreigners, I may have to explain
elaborately many things that all Englishmen know, and possibly cut out,
for brevity, many details that many Englishmen would like to know.
But, on the other side, it would be difficult to write a very vivid
and moving narrative of Nelson, while entirely concealing the fact
that he fought with the French. It would be futile to make a sketch
of St. Thomas and conceal the fact that he fought with heretics; and yet
the fact itself may embarrass the very purpose for which it is employed.
I can only express the hope, and indeed the confidence, that those
who regard me as the heretic will hardly blame me for expressing my
own convictions, and certainly not for expressing my hero's convictions.
There is only one point upon which such a question concerns this very
simple narrative. It is the conviction, which I have expressed once
or twice in the course of it, that the sixteenth-century schism was really
a belated revolt of the thirteenth-century pessimists. It was a back-wash
of the old Augustinian Puritanism against the Aristotelian liberality.
Without that, I could not place my historical figure in history.
But the whole is meant only for a rough sketch of a figure in a landscape
and not of a landscape with figures.
Second, it follows that in any such simplification I can hardly say
much of the philosopher beyond showing that he had a philosophy.
I have only, so to speak, given samples of that philosophy.
Lastly, it follows that it is practically impossible to deal
adequately with the theology. A lady I know picked up a book
of selections from St. Thomas with a commentary; and began hopefully
to read a section with the innocent heading, "The Simplicity
of God." She then laid down the book with a sigh and said,
"Well, if that's His simplicity, I wonder what His complexity is like."
With all respect to that excellent Thomistic commentary.
I have no desire to have this book laid down, at the very first glance,
with a similar sigh. I have taken the view that the biography
is an introduction to the philosophy, and that the philosophy
is an introduction to the theology; and that I can only carry
the reader just beyond the first stage of the story.
Third, I have not thought it necessary to notice those critics who,
from time to time, desperately play to the gallery by reprinting
paragraphs of medieval demonology in the hope of horrifying
the modern public merely by an unfamiliar language.
I have taken it for granted that educated men know that Aquinas
and all his contemporaries, and all his opponents for centuries after,
did believe in demons, and similar facts, but I have not
thought them worth mentioning here, for the simple reason
that they do not help to detach or distinguish the portrait.
In all that, there was no disagreement between Protestant
or Catholic theologians, for all the hundreds of years during
which there was any theology; and St. Thomas is not notable
as holding such views, except in holding them rather mildly.
I have not discussed such matters, not because I have any reason
to conceal them, but because they do not in any way personally
concern the one person whom it is here my business to reveal.
There is hardly room, even as it is, for such a figure in
such a frame.
Let me at once anticipate comment by answering to the name
of that notorious character, who rushes in where even
the Angels of the Angelic Doctor might fear to tread.
Some time ago I wrote a little book of this type and shape
on St. Francis of Assisi; and some time after (I know not when
or how, as the song says, and certainly not why) I promised
to write a book of the same size, or the same smallness on
St. Thomas Aquinas. The promise was Franciscan only in its rashness;
and the parallel was very far from being Thomistic in its logic.
You can make a sketch of St. Francis: you could only make
a plan of St. Thomas, like the plan of a labyrinthine city.
And yet in a sense he would fit into a much larger or a much
smaller book. What we really know of his life might be pretty
fairly dealt with in a few pages; for he did not, like St. Francis,
disappear in a shower of personal anecdotes and popular legends.
What we know, or could know, or may eventually have the luck
to learn, of his work, will probably fill even more
libraries in the future than it has filled in the past.
It was allowable to sketch St. Francis in an outline; but with
St. Thomas everything depends on the filling up of the outline.
It was even medieval in a manner to illuminate a miniature
of the Poverello, whose very title is a diminutive.
But to make a digest, in the tabloid manner, of the Dumb Ox
of Sicily passes all digestive experiments in the matter
of an ox in a tea-cup. But we must hope it is possible to make
an outline of biography, now that anybody seems capable
of writing an outline of history or an outline of anything.
Only in the present case the outline is rather an outsize.
The gown that could contain the colossal friar is not kept in stock.
I have said that these can only be portraits in outline.
But the concrete contrast is here so striking, that even if we
actually saw the two human figures in outline, coming over the hill
in their friar's gowns, we should find that contrast even comic.
It would be like seeing, even afar off, the silhouettes of Don Quixote
and Sancho Panza, or of Falstaff and Master Slender. St. Francis
was a lean and lively little man; thin as a thread and vibrant
as a bowstring; and in his motions like an arrow from the bow.
All his life was a series of plunges and scampers:
darting after the beggar, dashing naked into the woods,
tossing himself into the strange ship. hurling himself into
the Sultan tent and offering to hurl himself into the fire.
In appearance he must have been like a thin brown skeleton
autumn leaf dancing eternally before the wind; but in truth it
was he that was the wind.
St. Thomas was a huge heavy bull of a man, fat and slow and quiet;
very mild and magnanimous but not very sociable; shy, even apart
from the humility of holiness; and abstracted, even apart from his
occasional and carefully concealed experiences of trance or ecstasy.
St. Francis was so fiery and even fidgety that the ecclesiastics,
before whom he appeared quite suddenly, thought he was a madman.
St. Thomas was so stolid that the scholars, in the schools which
he attended regularly, thought he was a dunce. Indeed, he was the sort
of schoolboy, not unknown, who would much rather be thought a dunce
than have his own dreams invaded, by more active or animated dunces.
This external contrast extends to almost every point in the
two personalities. It was the paradox of St. Francis that while he was
passionately fond of poems, he was rather distrustful of books.
It was the outstanding fact about St. Thomas that he loved books
and lived on books; that he lived the very life of the clerk
or scholar in The Canterbury Tales, who would rather have a hundred
books of Aristotle and his philosophy than any wealth the world
could give him. When asked for what he thanked God most,
he answered simply, "I have understood every page I ever read."
St. Francis was very vivid in his poems and rather vague in his documents;
St. Thomas devoted his whole life to documenting whole systems
of Pagan and Christian literature; and occasionally wrote a hymn
like a man taking a holiday. They saw the same problem from
different angles, of simplicity and subtlety; St. Francis thought
it would be enough to pour out his heart to the Mohammedans,
to persuade them not to worship Mahound. St. Thomas bothered
his head with every hair-splitting distinction and deduction,
about the Absolute or the Accident, merely to prevent them from
misunderstanding Aristotle. St. Francis was the son of a shopkeeper,
or middle class trader; and while his whole life was a revolt
against the mercantile life of his father, he retained none the less,
something of the quickness and social adaptability which makes
the market hum like a hive. In the common phrase, fond as he was
of green fields, he did not let the grass grow under his feet.
He was what American millionaires and gangsters call a live wire.
It is typical of the mechanistic moderns that, even when they
try to imagine a live thing, they can only think of a mechanical
metaphor from a dead thing. There is such a thing as a live worm;
but there is no such thing as a live wire. St. Francis would have
heartily agreed that he was a worm; but he was a very live worm.
Greatest of all foes to the go-getting ideal, he had certainly
abandoned getting, but he was still going. St. Thomas, on the
other hand, came out of a world where he might have enjoyed leisure,
and he remained one of those men whose labour has something of
the placidity of leisure. He was a hard worker, but nobody could
possibly mistake him for a hustler. He had something indefinable
about him, which marks those who work when they need not work.
For he was by birth a gentleman of a great house, and such
repose can remain as a habit, when it is no longer a motive.
But in him it was expressed only in its most amiable elements;
for instance, there was possibly something of it in his effortless
courtesy and patience. Every saint is a man before he is a saint;
and a saint may be made of every sort or kind of man; and most of us will
choose between these different types according to our different tastes.
But I will confess that, while the romantic glory of St. Francis
has lost nothing of its glamour for me, I have in later years grown
to feel almost as much affection, or in some aspects even more,
for this man who unconsciously inhabited a large heart and a
large head, like one inheriting a large house, and exercised there
an equally generous if rather more absent-minded hospitality.
There are moments when St. Francis, the most unworldly man who ever
walked the world, is almost too efficient for me.
St. Thomas Aquinas has recently reappeared, in the current culture
of the colleges and the salons, in a way that would have been quite
startling even ten years ago. And the mood that has concentrated
on him is doubtless very different from that which popularised
St. Francis quite twenty years ago.
The Saint is a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that
is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison
because he is an antidote. He will generally be found restoring
the world to sanity by exaggerating whatever the world neglects,
which is by no means always the same element in every age.
Yet each generation seeks its saint by instinct; and he is
not what the people want, but rather what the people need.
This is surely the very much mistaken meaning of those words
to the first saints, "Ye are the salt of the earth,"
which caused the Ex-Kaiser to remark with all solemnity that
his beefy Germans were the salt of the earth; meaning thereby
merely that they were the earth's beefiest and therefore best.
But salt seasons and preserves beef, not because it is like beef;
but because it is very unlike it. Christ did not tell his apostles
that they were only the excellent people, or the only excellent people,
but that they were the exceptional people; the permanently incongruous
and incompatible people; and the text about the salt of the earth
is really as sharp and shrewd and tart as the taste of salt.
It is because they were the exceptional people, that they must
not lose their exceptional quality. "If salt lose its savour,
wherewith shall it be salted?" is a much more pointed question
than any mere lament over the price of the best beef.
If the world grows too worldly, it can be rebuked by the Church;
but if the Church grows too worldly, it cannot be adequately
rebuked for worldliness by the world.
Therefore it is the paradox of history that each generation
is converted by the saint who contradicts it most. St. Francis
had a curious and almost uncanny attraction for the Victorians;
for the nineteenth century English who seemed superficially to be
most complacent about their commerce and their common sense.
Not only a rather complacent Englishman like Matthew Arnold,
but even the English Liberals whom he criticised for
their complacency, began slowly to discover the mystery
of the Middle Ages through the strange story told in feathers
and flames in the hagiographical pictures of Giotto. There was
something in the story of St. Francis that pierced through all
those English qualities which are most famous and fatuous,
to all those English qualities which are most hidden and human:
the secret softness of heart; the poetical vagueness of mind;
the love of landscape and of animals. St. Francis of Assisi was
the only medieval Catholic who really became popular in England
on his own merits. It was largely because of a subconscious feeling
that the modern world had neglected those particular merits.
The English middle classes found their only missionary in
the figure, which of all types in the world they most despised;
an Italian beggar.
So, as the nineteenth century clutched at the Franciscan romance.
precisely because it had neglected romance, so the twentieth century
is already clutching at the Thomist rational theology, because it has
neglected reason. In a world that was too stolid, Christianity returned
in the form of a vagabond; in a world that has grown a great deal
too wild, Christianity has returned in the form of a teacher of logic.
In the world of Herbert Spencer men wanted a cure for indigestion;
in the world of Einstein they want a cure for vertigo.
In the first case, they dimly perceived the fact that it was after
a long fast that St. Francis sang the Song of the Sun and the praise
of the fruitful earth. In the second case, they already dimly
perceived that, even if they only want to understand Einstein,
it is necessary first to understand the use of the understanding.
They begin to see that, as the eighteenth century thought itself
the age of reason, and the nineteenth century thought itself
the age of common sense, the twentieth century cannot as yet even
manage to think itself anything but the age of uncommon nonsense.
In those conditions the world needs a saint; but above all,
it needs a philosopher. And these two cases do show that the world,
to do it justice, has an instinct for what it needs. The earth
was really very flat, for those Victorians who most vigorously
repeated that it was round, and Alverno of the Stigmata stood up
as a single mountain in the plain. But the earth is an earthquake,
a ceaseless and apparently endless earthquake, for the moderns
for whom Newton has been scrapped along with Ptolemy. And for them
there is something more steep and even incredible than a mountain;
a piece of really solid ground; the level of the level-headed man.
Thus in our time the two saints have appealed to two generations,
an age of romantics and an age of sceptics; yet in their own age
they were doing the same work; a work that has changed the world.
Again, it may be said truly that the comparison is idle,
and does not fit in well even as a fancy: since the men were not
properly even of the same generation or the same historic moment.
If two friars are to be presented as a pair of Heavenly Twins,
the obvious comparison is between St. Francis and St. Dominic.
The relations of St. Francis and St. Thomas were, at nearest,
those of uncle and nephew; and my fanciful excursus may appear
only a highly profane version of "Tommy make room for your uncle".
For if St. Francis and St. Dominic were the great twin brethren,
Thomas was obviously the first great son of St. Dominic, as was his
friend Bonaventure of St. Francis. Nevertheless, I have a reason
(indeed two reasons) for taking as a text the accident of two title-pages;
and putting St. Thomas beside St. Francis, instead of pairing him
off with Bonaventure the Franciscan. It is because the comparison,
remote and perverse as it may seem, is really a sort of short cut to
the heart of history; and brings us by the most rapid route to the real
question of the life and work of St. Thomas Aquinas. For most people
now have a rough but picturesque picture in their minds of the life
and work of St. Francis of Assisi. And the shortest way of telling
the other story is to say that, while the two men were thus a contrast
in almost every feature, they were really doing the same thing.
One of them was doing it in the world of the mind and the other in
the world of the worldly. But it was the same great medieval movement;
still but little understood. In a constructive sense, it was more
important than the Reformation. Nay, in a constructive sense,
it was the Reformation.
About this medieval movement there are two facts that must
first be emphasised. They are not, of course, contrary facts,
but they are perhaps answers to contrary fallacies.
First, in spite of all that was once said about superstition,
the Dark Ages and the sterility of Scholasticism, it was in every
sense a movement of enlargement, always moving towards greater
light and even greater liberty. Second, in spite of all
that was said later on about progress and the Renaissance and
forerunners of modern thought, it was almost entirely a movement
of orthodox theological enthusiasm, unfolded from within.
It was not a compromise with the world, or a surrender to
heathens or heretics, or even a mere borrowing of external aids,
even when it did borrow them. In so far as it did reach out
to the light of common day, it was like the action of a plant
which by its own force thrusts out its leaves into the sun;
not like the action of one who merely lets daylight into a prison.
In short, it was what is technically called a Development in doctrine.
But there seems to be a queer ignorance, not only about the technical,
but the natural meaning of the word Development. The critics
of Catholic theology seem to suppose that it is not so much
an evolution as an evasion; that it is at best an adaptation.
They fancy that its very success is the success of surrender.
But that is not the natural meaning of the word Development. When we
talk of a child being well-developed, we mean that he has grown
bigger and stronger with his own strength; not that he is padded
with borrowed pillows or walks on stilts to make him look taller.
When we say that a puppy develops into a dog, we do not mean
that his growth is a gradual compromise with a cat; we mean that
he becomes more doggy and not less. Development is the expansion
of all the possibilities and implications of a doctrine,
as there is time to distinguish them and draw them out;
and the point here is that the enlargement of medieval
theology was simply the full comprehension of that theology.
And it is of primary importance to realise this fact first,
about the time of the great Dominican and the first Franciscan,
because their tendency, humanistic and naturalistic in a hundred ways,
was truly the development of the supreme doctrine, which was
also the dogma of all dogmas. It is in this that the popular
poetry of St. Francis and the almost rationalistic prose of
St. Thomas appear most vividly as part of the same movement.
There are both great growths of Catholic development, depending upon
external things only as every living and growing thing depends on them;
that is, it digests and transforms them, but continues in its own
image and not in theirs. A Buddhist or a Communist might dream
of two things which simultaneously eat each other, as the perfect
form of unification. But it is not so with living things.
St. Francis was content to call himself the Troubadour of God;
but not content with the God of the Troubadours. St. Thomas did not
reconcile Christ to Aristotle; he reconciled Aristotle to Christ.
Yes; in spite of the contrasts that are as conspicuous and even comic
as the comparison between the fat man and the thin man, the tall
man and the short: in spite of the contrast between the vagabond
and the student, between the apprentice and the aristocrat,
between the book-hater and the book-lover, between the wildest
of all missionaries and the mildest of all professors, the great
fact of medieval history is that these two great men were doing
the same great work; one in the study and the other in the street.
They were not bringing something new into Christianity; in the sense
of something heathen or heretical into Christianity; on the contrary,
they were bringing Christianity into Christendom. But they were
bringing it back against the pressure of certain historic tendencies,
which had hardened into habits in many great schools and authorities
in the Christian Church; and they were using tools and weapons which
seemed to many people to be associated with heresy or heathenry.
St. Francis used Nature much as St. Thomas used Aristotle;
and to some they seemed to be using a Pagan goddess and a Pagan sage.
What they were really doing, and especially what St. Thomas
was really doing, will form the main matter of these pages;
but it is convenient to be able to compare him from the first with a
more popular saint; because we may thus sum up the substance of it
in the most popular way. Perhaps it would sound too paradoxical to say
that these two saints saved us from Spirituality; a dreadful doom.
Perhaps it may be misunderstood if I say that St. Francis,
for all his love of animals, saved us from being Buddhists;
and that St. Thomas, for all his love of Greek philosophy,
saved us from being Platonists. But it is best to say the truth
in its simplest form; that they both reaffirmed the Incarnation,
by bringing God back to earth.
This analogy, which may seem rather remote, is really perhaps
the best practical preface to the philosophy of St. Thomas. As we
shall have to consider more closely later on, the purely spiritual
or mystical side of Catholicism had very much got the upper hand
in the first Catholic centuries; through the genius of Augustine,
who had been a Platonist, and perhaps never ceased to be a Platonist;
through the transcendentalism of the supposed work of the Areopagite;
through the Oriental trend of the later Empire and something Asiatic
about the almost pontifical kinghood of Byzantium; all these things
weighed down what we should now roughly call the Western element;
though it has as good a right to be called the Christian element:
since its common sense is but the holy familiarity of the word
made flesh. Anyhow, it must suffice for the moment to say that
theologians had somewhat stiffened into a sort of Platonic pride
in the possession of intangible and untranslatable truths within;
as if no part of their wisdom had any root anywhere in the real world.
Now the first thing that Aquinas did, though by no means
the last, was to say to these pure transcendentalists something
substantially like this.
"Far be it from a poor friar to deny that you have these dazzling
diamonds in your head, all designed in the most perfect mathematical
shapes and shining with a purely celestial light; all there,
almost before you begin to think, let alone to see or hear or feel.
But I am not ashamed to say that I find my reason fed by my senses;
that I owe a great deal of what I think to what I see
and smell and taste and handle; and that so far as my reason
is concerned, I feel obliged to treat all this reality as real.
To be brief, in all humility, I do not believe that God meant
Man to exercise only that peculiar, uplifted and abstracted
sort of intellect which you are so fortunate as to possess:
but I believe that there is a middle field of facts which are
given by the senses to be the subject matter of the reason;
and that in that field the reason has a right to rule,
as the representative of God in Man. It is true that all this
is lower than the angels; but it is higher than the animals,
and all the actual material objects Man finds around him.
True, man also can be an object; and even a deplorable object.
But what man has done man may do; and if an antiquated old
heathen called Aristotle can help me to do it I will thank him
in all humility."
Thus began what is commonly called the appeal to Aquinas
and Aristotle. It might be called the appeal to Reason and
the Authority of the Senses. And it will be obvious that there
is a sort of popular parallel to it in the fact that St. Francis did
not only listen for the angels, but also listened to the birds.
And before we come to those aspects of St. Thomas that were very
severely intellectual, we may note that in him as in St. Francis
there is a preliminary practical element which is rather moral;
a sort of good and straightforward humility; and a readiness
in the man to regard even himself in some ways as an animal;
as St. Francis compared his body to a donkey. It may be said
that the contrast holds everywhere, even in zoological metaphor,
and that if St. Francis was like that common or garden donkey
who carried Christ into Jerusalem, St. Thomas, who was actually
compared to an ox, rather resembled that Apocalyptic monster
of almost Assyrian mystery; the winged bull. But again, we must
not let all that can be contrasted eclipse what was common;
or forget that neither of them would have been too proud to wait
as patiently as the ox and ass in the stable of Bethlehem.
There were of course, as we shall soon see, many other much more
curious and complicated ideas in the philosophy of St. Thomas;
besides this primary idea of a central common sense that is
nourished by the five senses. But at this stage, the point
of the story is not only that this was a Thomist doctrine,
but that it is a truly and eminently Christian doctrine.
For upon this point modern writers write a great deal of nonsense;
and show more than their normal ingenuity in missing the point.
Having assumed without argument, at the start, that all emancipation
must lead men away from religion and towards irreligion,
they have just blankly and blindly forgotten what is the outstanding
feature of the religion itself.
It will not be possible to conceal much longer from anybody
the fact that St. Thomas Aquinas was one of the great liberators
of the human intellect. The sectarians of the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries were essentially obscurantists,
and they guarded an obscurantist legend that the Schoolman
was an obscurantist. This was wearing thin even in the
nineteenth century; it will be impossible in the twentieth.
It has nothing to do with the truth of their theology or his;
but only with the truth of historical proportion,
which begins to reappear as quarrels begin to die down.
Simply as one of the facts that bulk big in history, it is true
to say that Thomas was a very great man who reconciled religion
with reason, who expanded it towards experimental science,
who insisted that the senses were the windows of the soul
and that the reason had a divine right to feed upon facts,
and that it was the business of the Faith to digest the strong
meat of the toughest and most practical of pagan philosophies.
It is a fact, like the military strategy of Napoleon, that Aquinas
was thus fighting for all that is liberal and enlightened,
as compared with his rivals, or for that matter his successors
and supplanters. Those who, for other reasons, honestly accept
the final effect of the Reformation will none the less face
the fact, that it was the Schoolman who was the Reformer;
and that the later Reformers were by comparison reactionaries.
I use the word not as a reproach from my own stand-point,
but as a fact from the ordinary modern progressive standpoint.
For instance, they riveted the mind back to the literal
sufficiency of the Hebrew Scriptures; when St. Thomas had already
spoken of the Spirit giving grace to the Greek philosophies.
He insisted on the social duty of works; they only on the spiritual
duty of faith. It was the very life of the Thomist teaching
that Reason can be trusted: it was the very life of Lutheran
teaching that Reason is utterly untrustworthy.
Now when this fact is found to be a fact, the danger is that all
the unstable opposition will suddenly slide to the opposite extreme.
Those who up to that moment have been abusing the Schoolman as a dogmatist
will begin to admire the Schoolman as a Modernist who diluted dogma.
They will hastily begin to adorn his statue with all the faded
garlands of progress, to present him as a man in advance of his age,
which is always supposed to mean in agreement with our age;
and to load him with the unprovoked imputation of having produced
the modern mind. They will discover his attraction, and somewhat
hastily assume that he was like themselves, because he was attractive.
Up to a point this is pardonable enough; up to a point it has
already happened in the case of St. Francis. But it would not go
beyond a certain point in the case of St. Francis. Nobody, not even
a Freethinker like Renan or Matthew Arnold, would pretend that
St. Francis was anything but a devout Christian, or had any other
original motive except the imitation of Christ. Yet St. Francis
also had that liberating and humanising effect upon religion;
though perhaps rather on the imagination than the intellect.
But nobody says that St. Francis was loosening the Christian code,
when he was obviously tightening it; like the rope round
his friar's frock. Nobody says he merely opened the gates to
sceptical science, or sold the pass to heathen humanism, or looked
forward only to the Renaissance or met the Rationalists half way.
No biographer pretend that St. Francis, when he is reported to have
opened the Gospels a random and read the great texts about Poverty,
really only opened the Aeneid and practised the Sors Virgiliana
out of respect for heathen letters and learning. No historian
will pretend that St. Francis wrote The Canticle of the Sun in close
imitation of a Homeric Hymn to Apollo or loved birds because he had
carefully learned all the trick of the Roman Augurs.
In short, most people, Christian or heathen, would now agree
that the Franciscan sentiment was primarily a Christian sentiment,
unfolded from within, out of an innocent (or, if you will,
ignorant) faith in the Christian religion itself. Nobody, as I
have said, says that St. Francis drew his primary inspiration
from Ovid. It would be every bit as false to say that Aquinas
drew his primary inspiration from Aristotle. The whole lesson
of his life, especially of his early life, the whole story
of his childhood and choice of a career, shows that he was
supremely and directly devotional; and that he passionately loved
the Catholic worship long before he found he had to fight for it.
But there is also a special and clinching instance of this
which once more connects St. Thomas with St. Francis. It seems
to be strangely forgotten that both these saints were in actual
fact imitating a Master, who was not Aristotle let alone Ovid,
when they sanctified the senses or the simple things of nature;
when St. Francis walked humbly among the beasts or St. Thomas
debated courteously among the Gentiles.
Those who miss this, miss the point of the religion,
even if it be a superstition; nay, they miss the very point they
would call most superstitious. I mean the whole staggering
story of the God-Man in the Gospels. A few even miss it
touching St. Francis and his unmixed and unlearned appeal
to the Gospels. They will talk of the readiness of St. Francis
to learn from the flowers or the birds as something that can
only point onward to the Pagan Renaissance. Whereas the fact
stares them in the face; first, that it points backwards
to the New Testament, and second that it points forward, if it
points to anything, to the Aristotelian realism of the Summa
of St. Thomas Aquinas. They vaguely imagine that anybody
who is humanising divinity must be paganising divinity without
seeing that the humanising of divinity is actually the strongest
and starkest and most incredible dogma in the Creed. St. Francis
was becoming more like Christ, and not merely more like Buddha,
when he considered the lilies of the field or the fowls of the air;
and St. Thomas was becoming more of a Christian, and not merely
more of an Aristotelian, when he insisted that God and the image
of God had come in contact through matter with a material world.
These saints were, in the most exact sense of the term, Humanists;
because they were insisting on the immense importance
of the human being in the theological scheme of things.
But they were not Humanists marching along a path of progress
that leads to Modernism and general scepticism; for in their
very Humanism they were affirming a dogma now often regarded
as the most superstitious Superhumanism. They were strengthening
that staggering doctrine of Incarnation, which the sceptics
find it hardest to believe. There cannot be a stiffer piece
of Christian divinity than the divinity of Christ.
This is a point that is here very much to the point; that these men
became more orthodox, when they became more rational or natural.
Only by being thus orthodox could they be thus rational and natural.
In other words, what may really be called a liberal theology
was unfolded from within, from out of the original mysteries
of Catholicism. But that liberality had nothing to do with liberalism;
in fact it cannot even now coexist with liberalism [(footnote) I use
the word liberalism here in the strictly limited theological sense,
in which Newman and other theologians use it. In its popular political
sense, as I point out later, St. Thomas rather tended to be a Liberal,
especially for his time]. The matter is so cogent, that I will take
one or two special ideas of St. Thomas to illustrate what I mean.
Without anticipating the elementary sketch of Thomism that must
be made later, the following points may be noted here.
For instance, it was a very special idea of St. Thomas that Man
is to be studied in his whole manhood; that a man is not a man
without his body, just as he is not a man without his soul.
A corpse is not a man; but also a ghost is not a man.
The earlier school of Augustine and even of Anselm had
rather neglected this, treating the soul as the only
necessary treasure, wrapped for a time in a negligible napkin.
Even here they were less orthodox in being more spiritual.
They sometimes hovered on the edge of those Eastern deserts that
stretch away to the land of transmigration where the essential soul
may pass through a hundred unessential bodies; reincarnated even
in the bodies of beasts or birds. St. Thomas stood up stoutly
for the fact that a man's body is his body as his mind is his mind;
and that he can only be a balance and union of the two.
Now this is in some ways a naturalistic notion, very near
to the modern respect for material things; a praise of the body
that might be sung by Walt Whitman or justified by D H. Lawrence:
a thing that might be called Humanism or even claimed
by Modernism. In fact, it may be Materialism; but it is the flat
contrary of Modernism. It is bound up, in the modern view,
with the most monstrous, the most material, and therefore the most
miraculous of miracles. It is specially connected with the most
startling sort of dogma, which the Modernist can least accept;
the Resurrection of the Body.
Or again, his argument for Revelation is quite rationalistic;
and on the other side, decidedly democratic and popular.
His argument for Revelation is not in the least an argument
against Reason. On the contrary, he seems inclined to admit
that truth could be reached by a rational process, if only it
were rational enough; and also long enough. Indeed, something in
his character, which I have called elsewhere optimism, and for which
I know no other approximate term, led him rather to exaggerate
the extent to which all men would ultimately listen to reason.
In his controversies, he always assumes that they will listen
to reason. That is, he does emphatically believe that men can
be convinced by argument; when they reach the end of the argument.
Only his common sense also told him that the argument never ends.
I might convince a man that matter as the origin of Mind
is quite meaningless, if he and I were very fond of each
other and fought each other every night for forty years.
But long before he was convinced on his deathbed, a thousand
other materialists could have been born, and nobody can explain
everything to everybody. St. Thomas takes the view that the souls
of all the ordinary hard-working and simple-minded people are
quite as important as the souls of thinkers and truth-seekers;
and he asks how all these people are possibly to find time
for the amount of reasoning that is needed to fin truth.
The whole tone of the passage shows both a respect for
scientific enquiry and a strong sympathy with the average man.
His argument for Revelation is not an argument against Reason;
but it is an argument for Revelation. The conclusion he draws
from it is that men must receive the highest moral truths in a
miraculous manner; or most men would not receive them at all.
His arguments are rational and natural; but his own deduction
is all for the supernatural; and, as is common in the case
of his argument, it is not easy to find any deduction except
his own deduction. And when we come to that, we find it
is something as simple as St. Francis himself could desire;
the message from heaven; the story that is told out of the sky;
the fairytale that is really true.
It is plainer still in more popular problems like Free Will.
If St. Thomas stands for one thing more than another, it is what
may be called subordinate sovereignties or autonomies. He was,
if the flippancy may be used, a strong Home Ruler. We might even say
he was always defending the independence of dependent things. He insisted
that such a thing could have its own rights in its own region.
It was his attitude to the Home Rule of the reason and even the senses;
"Daughter am I in my father's house; but mistress in my own."
And in exactly this sense he emphasised a certain dignity in Man,
which was sometimes rather swallowed up in the purely theistic
generalisations about God. Nobody would say he wanted to divide
Man from God; but he did want to distinguish Man from God. In this
strong sense of human dignity and liberty there is much that can
be and is appreciated now as a noble humanistic liberality.
But let us not forget that its upshot was that very Free Will, or moral
responsibility of Man, which so many modern liberals would deny.
Upon this sublime and perilous liberty hang heaven and hell, and all
the mysterious drama of the soul. It is distinction and not division;
but a man can divide himself from God, which, in a certain aspect,
is the greatest distinction of all.
Again, though it is a more metaphysical matter, which must
be mentioned later, and then only too slightly, it is the same
with the old philosophical dispute about the Many and the One.
Are things so different that they can never be classified:
or so unified that they can never be distinguished?
Without pretending to answer such questions here, we may say broadly
that St. Thomas comes down definitely on the side of Variety,
as a thing that is real as well as Unity. In this, and questions
akin to this, he often departs from the great Greek philosophers
who were sometimes his models; and entirely departs from the
great Oriental philosophers who are in some sense his rivals.
He seems fairly certain that the difference between chalk
and cheese, or pigs and pelicans, is not a mere illusion,
or dazzle of our bewildered mind blinded by a single light;
but is pretty much what we all feel it to be. It may be said
that this is mere common sense; the common sense that pigs
are pigs; to that extent related to the earthbound Aristotelian
common sense; to a human and even a heathen common sense.
But note that here again the extremes of earth and heaven meet.
It is also connected with the dogmatic Christian idea of the Creation;
of a Creator who created pigs, as distinct from a Cosmos
that merely evolved them.
In all these cases we see repeated the point stated at the start.
The Thomist movement in metaphysics, like the Franciscan movement
in morals and manners, was an enlargement and a liberation,
it was emphatically a growth of Christian theology from within;
it was emphatically not a shrinking of Christian theology under
heathen or even human influences. The Franciscan was free to be
a friar, instead of being bound to be a monk. But he was more
of a Christian, more of a Catholic, even more of an ascetic.
So the Thomist was free to be an Aristotelian, instead of being
bound to be an Augustinian. But he was even more of a theologian;
more of an orthodox theologian; more of a dogmatist, in having
recovered through Aristotle the most defiant of all dogmas,
the wedding of God with Man and therefore with Matter. Nobody can
understand the greatness of the thirteenth century, who does
not realise that it was a great growth of new things produced
by a living thing. In that sense it was really bolder and freer
than what we call the Renaissance, which was a resurrection
of old things discovered in a dead thing. In that sense
medievalism was not a Renascence, but rather a Nascence. It did
not model its temples upon the tombs, or call up dead gods
from Hades. It made an architecture as new as modern engineering;
indeed it still remains the most modern architecture. Only it
was followed at the Renaissance by a more antiquated architecture.
In that sense the Renaissance might be called the Relapse. Whatever may
be said of the Gothic and the Gospel according to St. Thomas,
they were not a Relapse. It was a new thrust like the titanic
thrust of Gothic engineering; and its strength was in a God
who makes all things new.
In a word, St. Thomas was making Christendom more Christian
in making it more Aristotelian. This is not a paradox but a
plain truism, which can only be missed by those who may know
what is meant by an Aristotelian, but have simply forgotten
what is meant by a Christian. As compared with a Jew,
a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Deist, or most obvious alternatives,
a Christian means a man who believes that deity or sanctity
has attached to matter or entered the world of the senses.
Some modern writers, missing this simple point, have even talked
as if the acceptance of Aristotle was a sort of concession
to the Arabs; like a Modernist vicar making a concession to
the Agnostics. They might as well say that the Crusades were
a concession to the Arabs as say that Aquinas rescuing Aristotle
from Averrhoes was a concessions to the Arabs. The Crusaders
wanted to recover the place where the body of Christ had been,
because they believed, rightly or wrongly, that it was a
Christian place. St. Thomas wanted to recover what was in essence
the body of Christ itself; the sanctified body of the Son of Man
which had become a miraculous medium between heaven and earth.
And he wanted the body, and all its senses, because he believed,
rightly or wrongly, that it was a Christian thing. It might be
a humbler or homelier thing than the Platonic mind that is why
it was Christian. St. Thomas was, if you will, taking the lower
road when he walked in the steps of Aristotle. So was God,
when He worked in the workshop of Joseph.
Lastly, these two great men were not only united to each other
but separated from most of their comrades and contemporaries
by the very revolutionary character of their own revolution.
In 1215, Dominic Guzman, the Castilian, founded an Order very
similar to that of Francis; and, by a most curious coincidence
of history, at almost exactly the same moment as Francis. It was
directed primarily to preaching the Catholic philosophy to the
Albigensian heretics; whose own philosophy was one of the many forms
of that Manicheanism with which this story is much concerned.
It had its roots in the remote mysticism and moral detachment
of the East; and it was therefore inevitable that the Dominicans
should be rather more a brotherhood of philosophers,
where the Franciscans were by comparison a brotherhood of poets.
For this and other reasons, St. Dominic and his followers are little
known or understood in modern England; they were involved eventually
in a religious war which followed on a theological argument;
and there was something in the atmosphere of our country,
during the last century or so, which made the theological
argument even more incomprehensible than the religious war.
The ultimate effect is in some ways curious; because St. Dominic,
even more than St. Francis, was marked by that intellectual independence,
and strict standard of virtue and veracity, which Protestant
cultures are wont to regard as specially Protestant. It was
of him that the tale was told, and would certainly have been
told more widely among us if it had been told of a Puritan,
that the Pope pointed to his gorgeous Papal Palace and said,
"Peter can no longer say `Silver and gold have I none'";
and the Spanish friar answered, "No, and neither can he now say,
`Rise and walk.'"
Thus there is another way in which the popular story of St. Francis
can be a sort of bridge between the modern and medieval world.
And it is based on that very fact already mentioned:
that St. Francis and St. Dominic stand together in history
as having done the same work, and yet are divided in English
popular tradition in the most strange and startling way.
In their own lands they are like Heavenly Twins, irradiating the same
light from heaven, seeming sometimes to be two saints in one halo,
as another order depicted Holy Poverty as two knights on one horse.
In the legends of our own land, they are about as much united
as St. George and the Dragon. Dominic is still conceived
as an Inquisitor devising thumbscrews; while Francis is
already accepted as a humanitarian deploring mousetraps.
It seems, for instance, quite natural to us, and full of the same
associations of flowers and starry fancies, that the name of Francis
should belong to Francis Thompson. But I fancy it would seem
less natural to call him Dominic Thompson; or find that a man,
with a long record of popular sympathies and practical tenderness
to the poor, could bear such a name as Dominic Plater. It would
sound as if he had been called Torquemada Thompson.
Now there must be something wrong behind this contradiction;
turning those who were allies at home into antagonists abroad.
On any other question, the fact would be apparent to common sense.
Suppose English Liberals or Free-Traders found that, in remote
parts of China, it was generally held that Cobden was a cruel
monster but Bright a stainless saint. They would think there was
a mistake somewhere. Suppose that American Evangelicals learned
that in France or Italy, or other civilizations impenetrable
by Moody and Sankey, there was a popular belief that Moody was
an angel but Sankey a devil; they would guess that there must
be a muddle somewhere. Some other later accidental distinction
must have cut across the main course of a historical tendency.
These parallels are not so fantastic as they may sound.
Cobden and Bright have actually been called "child-torturers",
in anger at their alleged callousness about the evils amended
by the Factory Acts; and some would call the Moody and Sankey sermon
on Hell a hellish exhibition. All that is a matter of opinion;
but both men held the same sort of opinion, and there must
be a blunder in an opinion that separates them so completely.
And of course there is a complete blunder in the legend
about St. Dominic. Those who know anything about St. Dominic
know that he was a missionary and not a militant persecutor;
that his contribution to religion was the Rosary and not the Rack;
that his whole career is meaningless, unless we understand that his
famous victories were victories of persuasion and not persecution.
He did believe in the justification of persecution; in the sense
that the secular arm could repress religious disorders.
So did everybody else believe in persecution; and none more than
the elegant blasphemer. Frederick II who believed in nothing else.
Some say he was the first to burn heretics; but anyhow, he thought it
was one of his imperial privileges and duties to persecute heretics.
But to talk as if Dominic did nothing but persecute heretics,
is like blaming Father Matthew, who persuaded millions of
drunkards to take a temperance pledge, because the accepted law
sometimes allowed a drunkard to be arrested by a policeman.
It is to miss the whole point; which is that this particular
man had a genius for conversion, quite apart from compulsion.
The real difference between Francis and Dominic, which is no discredit
to either of them, is that Dominic did happen to be confronted
with a huge campaign for the conversion of heretics, while Francis
had only the more subtle task of the conversion of human beings.
It is an old story that, while we may need somebody like Dominic
to convert the heathen to Christianity, we are in even greater
need of somebody like Francis, to convert the Christians
to Christianity. Still, we must not lose sight of St. Dominic's
special problem, which was that of dealing with a whole population,
kingdoms and cities and countrysides, that had drifted from
the Faith and solidified into strange and abnormal new religions.
That he did win back masses of men so deceived, merely by talking
and preaching, remains an enormous triumph worthy of a colossal trophy.
St. Francis is called humane because he tried to convert
Saracens and failed; St. Dominic is called bigoted and besotted
because he tried to convert Albigensians and succeeded.
But we happen to be in a curious nook or corner of the hills
of history, from which we can see Assisi and the Umbrian hills,
but are out of sight of the vast battle-field of the Southern Crusade;
the miracle of Muret and the greater miracle of Dominic,
when the roots of the Pyrenees and the shores of the Mediterranean
saw defeated the Asiatic despair.
But there is an earlier and more essential link between Dominic
and Francis, which is more to the immediate purpose of this book.
They were in later times bracketed in glory because they were in
their own time bracketed in infamy; or at least in unpopularity.
For they did the most unpopular thing that men can do;
they started a popular movement. A man who dares to make a direct
appeal to the populace always makes a long series of enemies--
beginning with the populace. In proportion as the poor begin
to understand that he means to help and not hurt them, the solid
classes above begin to close in, resolved to hinder and not help.
The rich, and even the learned, sometimes feel not unreasonably
that the thing will change the world, not only in its worldliness
or its worldly wisdom, but to some extent perhaps in its real wisdom.
Such a feeling was not unnatural in this case; when we consider,
for instance, St. Francis's really reckless attitude about
rejecting books and scholarship; or the tendency that the Friars
afterwards showed to appeal to the Pope in contempt of local
bishops and ecclesiastical officers. In short, St. Dominic and
St. Francis created a Revolution, quite as popular and unpopular
as the French Revolution. But it is very hard today to feel
that even the French Revolution was as fresh as it really was.
The Marseillaise once sounded like the human voice of the volcano or
the dance-tune of the earthquake, and the kings of the earth trembled.
some fearing that the heavens might fall; some fearing far more that
justice might be done. The Marseillaise is played today at diplomatic
dinner-parties, where smiling monarchs meet beaming millionaires,
and is rather less revolutionary than "Home Sweet Home". Also,
it is highly pertinent to recall, the modern revolutionists
would now call the revolt of the French Jacobins insufficient,
just as they would call the revolt of the Friars insufficient.
They would say that neither went far enough; but many,
in their own day, thought they went very much too far.
In the case of the Friars, the higher orders of the State,
and to some extent even of the Church, were profoundly shocked
at such a loosening of wild popular preachers among the people.
It is not at all easy for us to feel that distant events were
thus disconcerting and even disreputable. Revolutions turn
into institutions; revolts that renew the youth of old societies
in their turn grow old; and the past, which was full of new things,
of splits and innovations and insurrections, seems to us a single
texture of tradition.
But if we wish for one fact that will make vivid this shock of change
and challenge, and show how raw and ragged, how almost rowdy
in its reckless novelty, how much of the gutter and how remote from
refined life, this experiment of the Friars did really seem to many
in its own day, there is here a very relevant fact to reveal it.
It shows how much a settled and already ancient Christendom did
feel it as something like the end of an age; and how the very roads
of the earth seem to shake under the feet of the new and nameless army;
the march of the Beggars. A mystic nursery rhyme suggests
the atmosphere of such a crisis: "Hark, hark, the dogs do bark;
the Beggars are coming to town". There were many towns that almost
fortified themselves against them and many watchdogs of property
and rank did really bark, and hark loudly, when those Beggars went by;
but louder was the singing of the Beggars who sang their Canticle
to the Sun, and louder the baying of the Hounds of Heaven;
the Domini canes of the medieval pun; the Dogs of God. And if we
would measure how real and rending seemed that revolution,
what a break with the past, we can see it in the first and most
extraordinary event in the life of St. Thomas Aquinas.
CHESTERTON-St Thomas Aquinas