CHESTERTON-St Thomas Aquinas - I ON TWO FRIARS
Thomas Aquinas, in a strange and rather symbolic manner, sprang out
of the very centre of the civilised world of his time; the central knot
or coil of the powers then controlling Christendom. He was closely
connected with all of them; even with some of them that might well be
described as destroying Christendom. The whole religious quarrel,
the whole international quarrel, was for him, a family quarrel.
He was born in the purple, almost literally on the hem of the
imperial purple; for his own cousin was the Holy Roman Emperor. He could
have quartered half the kingdoms of Europe on his shield--
if he had not thrown away the shield. He was Italian and French
and German and in every way European. On one side, he inherited
from the energy that made the episode of the Normans, whose strange
organising raids rang and rattled like flights of arrows in the corners
of Europe and the ends of the earth; one flight of them following
Duke William far northward through the blinding snows to Chester;
another treading in Greek and Punic footsteps through the island
of Sicily to the gates of Syracuse. Another bond of blood bound him to
the great Emperors of the Rhine and Danube who claimed to wear the crown
of Charlemagne; Red Barbarossa, who sleeps under the rushing river,
was his great uncle, and Frederick II, the Wonder of the World,
his second cousin, and yet he held by a hundred more intimate ties
to the lively inner life, the local vivacity, the little walled
nations and the thousand shrines of Italy. While inheriting this
physical kinship with the Emperor, he maintained far more firmly
his spiritual kinship with the Pope. He understood the meaning
of Rome, and in what sense it was still ruling the world;
and was not likely to think that the German Emperors of his times
any more than the Greek Emperors of a previous time, would be able
to be really Roman in defiance of Rome. To this cosmopolitan
comprehensiveness in his inherited position, he afterwards added
many things of his own, that made for mutual understanding among
the peoples, and gave him something of the character of an ambassador
and interpreter. He travelled a great deal; he was not only
well known in Paris and the German universities, but he almost
certainly visited England; probably he went to Oxford and London;
and it has been said that we may be treading in the footsteps of him
and his Dominican companions, whenever we go down by the river
to the railway-station that still bears the name of Black-friars. But
the truth applies to the travels of his mind as well as his body.
He studied the literature even of the opponents of Christianity
much more carefully and impartially than was then the fashion;
he really tried to understand the Arabian Aristotelianism of the Moslems;
and wrote a highly humane and reasonable treatise on the problem of
the treatment of the Jews. He always attempted to look at everything
from the inside; but he was certainly lucky in having been born
in the inside of the state system and the high politics of his day.
What he thought of them may perhaps be inferred from the next passage
in his history.
St. Thomas might thus stand very well for the International Man,
to borrow the title of a modern book. But it is only fair to remember
that he lived in the International Age; in a world that was international
in a sense not to be suggested in any modern book, or by any modern man.
If I remember right, the modern candidate for the post of
International Man was Cobden, who was an almost abnormally national man.
a narrowly national man; a very fine type, but one which can hardly
be imagined except as moving between Midhurst and Manchester. He had
an international policy and he indulged in international travel;
but if he always remained a national person, it was because he remained
a normal person; that is normal to the nineteenth century. But it was not
so in the thirteenth century. There a man of international influence,
like Cobden, could be also almost a man of international nationality.
The names of nations and cities and places of origin did not
connote that deep division that is the mark of the modern world.
Aquinas as a student was nicknamed the ox of Sicily, though his birthplace
was near Naples, but this did not prevent the city of Paris regarding
him as simply and solidly as a Parisian, because he had been a glory
of the Sorbonne, that it proposed to bury his bones when he was dead.
Or take a more obvious contrast with modern times. Consider what is
meant in most modern talk by a German Professor. And then realise
that the greatest of all German Professors, Albertus Magnus, was himself
one of the glories of the University of Paris; and it was in Paris
that Aquinas supported him. Think of the modern German Professor being
famous throughout Europe for his popularity when lecturing in Paris.
Thus, if there was war in Christendom, it was international war
in the special sense in which we speak of international peace.
It was not the war of two nations; but the war of two internationalisms:
of two World States: the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire.
The political crisis in Christendom affected the life of Aquinas at
the start in one sharp disaster, and afterwards in many indirect ways.
It had many elements; the Crusades; the embers of the Albigensian
pessimism over which St. Dominic had triumphed in argument and Simon
de Montfort in arms; the dubious experiment of an Inquisition
which started from it; and many other things. But, broadly speaking,
it is the period of the great duel between the Popes and the Emperors,
that is the German Emperors who called themselves Holy Roman Emperors,
the House of Hohenstaufen. The particular period of the life
of Aquinas, however, is entirely overshadowed by the particular
Emperor who was himself more an Italian than a German; the brilliant
Frederick II who was called the Wonder of the World. It may be reminded,
in passing, that Latin was the most living of languages at this time,
and we often feel a certain weakness in the necessary translation.
For I seem to have read somewhere that the word used was stronger
than the Wonder of the World; that his medieval title was Stupor Mundi,
which is more exactly the Stupefaction of the World. Something of
the sort may be noted later of philosophical language, and the weakness
of translating a word like Ens by a word like Being. But for the moment
the parenthesis has another application; for it might well be said
that Frederick did indeed stupefy the world; that there was something
stunning and blinding about the blows he struck at religion, as in
that blow which almost begins the biography of Thomas Aquinas. He may
also be called stupefying in another sense; in that his very brilliancy
has made some of his modern admirers very stupid.
For Frederick II is the first figure, and that a rather fierce
and ominous figure, who rides across the scene of his cousin's
birth and boyhood: a scene of wild fighting and of fire.
And it may be allowable to pause for a parenthesis upon his name,
for two particular reasons: first that his romantic reputation,
even among modern historians, covers and partly conceals the true
background of the times and second that the tradition in question
directly involves the whole status of St Thomas Aquinas. The nineteenth
century view, still so strangely called the modern view by many moderns,
touching such a man as Frederick II was well summed up by some
solid Victorian, I think by Macaulay; Frederick was "a statesman
in an age of Crusaders; a philosopher in an age of monks."
It may be noted that the antithesis invokes the assumption that
a Crusader cannot easily be a statesman; and that a monk cannot
easily be a philosopher. Yet, to take only that special instance,
it would be easy to point out that the cases of two famous men
in the age of Frederick II would alone be strong enough to upset
both the assumption and the antithesis. St. Louis, though a Crusader
and even an unsuccessful Crusader, was really a far more successful
statesman than Frederick II. By the test of practical politics,
he popularised, solidified and sanctified the most powerful government
in Europe, the order and concentration of the French Monarchy;
the single dynasty that steadily increased its strength for five
hundred years up to the glories of the Grand Siecle whereas
Frederick went down in ruin before the Papacy and the Republics
and a vast combination of priests and peoples. The Holy Roman Empire
he wished to found was an ideal rather in the sense of a dream;
it was certainly never a fact like the square and solid State
which the French statesman did found. Or, to take another example
from the next generation, one of the most strictly practical
statesmen in history, our own Edward I, was also a Crusader.
The other half of the antithesis is even more false and here even
more relevant. Frederick II was not a philosopher in the age of monks.
He was a gentleman dabbling in philosophy in the age of the monk
Thomas Aquinas. He was doubtless an intelligent and even
brilliant gentleman; but if he did leave any notes on the nature
of Being and Becoming, or the precise sense in which realities
can be relative to Reality, I do not imagine those notes are
now exciting undergraduates at Oxford or literary men in Paris,
let alone the little groups of Thomists who have already
sprung up even in New York and Chicago. It is no disrespect
to the Emperor to say that he certainly was not a philosopher
in the sense in which Thomas Aquinas was a philosopher,
let alone so great or so universal or so permanent a philosopher.
And Thomas Aquinas lived in that very age of monks, and in that very
world of monks, which Macaulay talks of as if it were incapable
of producing philosophy.
We need not dwell on the causes of this Victorian prejudice,
which some still think so well advanced. It arose mainly
from one narrow or insular notion; that no man could possibly
be building up the best of the modern world, if he went with
the main movement of the medieval world. These Victorians
thought that only the heretic had ever helped humanity;
only the man who nearly wrecked medieval civilisation
could be of any use in constructing modern civilisation.
Hence came a score of comic fables; as that the cathedrals
must have been built by a secret society of Freemasons;
or that the epic of Dante must be a cryptogram referring
to the political hopes of Garibaldi. But the generalisation
is not in its nature probable and it is not in fact true.
This medieval period was rather specially the period of communal
or corporate thinking, and in some matters it was really
rather larger than the individualistic modern thinking.
This could be proved in a flash from the mere fact of the use
of the word 'statesman'. To a man of Macaulay's period,
a statesman always meant a man who maintained the more narrow
national interests of his own state against other states,
as Richelieu maintained those of France, or Chatham of England,
or Bismarck of Prussia. But if a man actually wanted
to defend all these states, to combine all these states,
to make a living brotherhood of all these states, to resist
some outer peril as from the Mongolian millions--then that
poor devil, of course, could not really be called a statesman.
He was only a Crusader.
In this way it is but fair to Frederick II to say that he was a Crusader;
if he was also rather like an Anti-Crusader. Certainly he was
an international statesman. Indeed he was a particular type,
which may be called an international soldier. The international
soldier is always very much disliked by internationalists.
They dislike Charlemagne and Charles V and Napoleon; and everybody who
tried to create the World State for which they cry aloud day and night.
But Frederick is more dubious and less doubted; he was supposed to be
the head of the Holy Roman Empire; and accused of wanting to be the head
of a very Unholy Roman Empire. But even if he were Antichrist,
he would still be a witness to the unity of Christendom.
Nevertheless, there is a queer quality in that time;
which, while it was international was also internal
and intimate. War, in the wide modern sense, is possible,
not because more men disagree, but because more men agree.
Under the peculiarly modern coercions, such as Compulsory Education
and Conscription, there are such very large peaceful areas,
that they can all agree upon War. In that age men disagreed
even about war; and peace might break out anywhere.
Peace was interrupted by feuds and feuds by pardons.
Individuality wound in and out of a maze; spiritual extremes
were walled up with one another in one little walled town;
and we see the great soul of Dante divided, a cloven flame;
loving and hating his own city. This individual complexity
is intensely vivid in the particular story we have here to tell,
in a very rough outline. If anyone wishes to know what is meant
by saying that action was more individual, and indeed incalculable,
he may well note some of the stages in the story of the great
feudal house of Aquino, which had its castle not far
from Naples. In the mere hasty anecdote we have now to tell,
we shall note in succession five or six stages of this sort.
Landulf of Aquino, a heavy feudal fighter typical of the times,
rode in armour behind the imperial banners, and attacked
a monastery, because the Emperor regarded the monastery as a
fortress held for his enemy the Pope. Later, we shall see
the same feudal Lord sent his own son to the same monastery;
probably on the friendly advice of the same Pope. Later still,
another of his sons, entirely on his own, rebelled against
the Emperor, and went over to the armies of the Pope. For this
he was executed by the Emperor, with promptitude and despatch.
I wish we knew more about that brother of Thomas Aquinas who risked
and lost his life to support the cause of the Pope which was
in all human essentials the cause of the People. He may not have
been a saint; but he must have had some qualities of a martyr.
Meanwhile, two other brothers, still ardent and active apparently
in the service of the Emperor who killed the third brother,
themselves proceeded to kidnap another brother, because they did not
approve of his sympathy with the new social movements in religion.
That is the sort of tangle in which this one distinguished
medieval family found itself. It was not a war of nations,
but it was a rather widespread family quarrel.
The reason for dwelling here, however, upon the position
of the Emperor Frederick, as a type of his time, in his culture
and his violence, in his concern for philosophy and his quarrel
with religion, is not merely concerned with these things.
He may here be the first figure that crosses the stage,
because one of his very typical actions precipitated
the first action, or obstinate inaction, which began
the personal adventures of Thomas Aquinas in this world.
The story also illustrates the extraordinary tangle in which
a family like that of the Count of Aquino found itself;
being at once so close to the Church and so much at odds with it.
For Frederick II, in the course of these remarkable manoeuvres,
military and political, which ranged from burning heretics to
allying himself with Saracens, made a swoop as of a predatory eagle
(and the Imperial eagle was rather predatory) upon a very large
and wealthy monastery; the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino;
and stormed and sacked the place.
Some miles from the monastery of Monte Cassino stood a great crag
or cliff, standing up like a pillar of the Apennines. It was crowned
with a castle that bore the name of The Dry Rock, and was the eyrie
in which the eaglets of the Aquino branch of the Imperial family
were nursed to fly. Here lived Count Landulf of Aquino, who was
the father of Thomas Aquinas and some seven other sons. In military
affairs he doubtless rode with his family, in the feudal manner;
and apparently had something to do with the destruction of the monastery.
But it was typical of the tangle of the time, that Count Landulf
seems afterwards to have thought that it would be a tactful and
delicate act to put in his son Thomas as Abbot of the monastery.
This would be of the nature of a graceful apology to the Church,
and also, it would appear, the solution of a family difficulty.
For it had been long apparent to Count Landulf that nothing could be done
with his seventh son Thomas, except to make him an Abbot or something
of that kind. Born in 1226, he had from childhood a mysterious
objection to becoming a predatory eagle, or even to taking an ordinary
interest in falconry or tilting or any other gentlemanly pursuits.
He was a large and heavy and quiet boy, and phenomenally silent,
scarcely opening his mouth except to say suddenly to his schoolmaster
in an explosive manner, "What is God?" The answer is not recorded but it
is probable that the asker went on worrying out answers for himself.
The only place for a person of this kind was the Church and presumably the
cloister; and so far as that went, there was no particular difficulty.
It was easy enough for a man in Count Landulf's position to arrange
with some monastery for his son to be received there; and in this
particular case he thought it would be a good idea if he were received
in some official capacity, that would be worthy of his worldly rank.
So everything was smoothly arranged for Thomas Aquinas becoming a monk,
which would seem to be what he himself wanted; and sooner or later
becoming Abbot of Monte Cassino. And then the curious thing happened.
In so far as we may follow rather dim and disputed events,
it would seem that the young Thomas Aquinas walked into his father's
castle one day and calmly announced that he had become one of the
Begging Friars, of the new order founded by Dominic the Spaniard;
much as the eldest son of the squire might go home and airily inform
the family that he had married a gypsy; or the heir of a Tory Duke
state that he was walking tomorrow with the Hunger Marchers organised
by alleged Communists. By this, as has been noted already, we may
pretty well measure the abyss between the old monasticism and the new,
and the earthquake of the Dominican and Franciscan revolution.
Thomas had appeared to wish to be a Monk; and the gates were silently
opened to him and the long avenues of the abbey, the very carpet,
so to speak, laid for him up to the throne of the mitred abbot.
He said he wished to be a Friar, and his family flew at him
like wild beasts; his brothers pursued him along the public roads,
half-rent his friar's frock from his back and finally locked him
up in a tower like a lunatic.
It is not very easy to trace the course of this furious family quarrel,
and how it eventually spent itself against the tenacity
of the young Friar; according to some stories, his mother's
disapproval was short-lived and she went over to his side;
but it was not only his relatives that were embroiled.
We might say that the central governing class of Europe,
which partly consisted of his family, were in a turmoil over the
deplorable youth; even the Pope was asked for tactful intervention,
and it was at one time proposed that Thomas should be allowed
to wear the Dominican habit while acting as Abbot in the
Benedictine Abbey. To many this would seem a tactful compromise;
but it did not commend itself to the narrow medieval mind
of Thomas Aquinas. He indicated sharply that he wished to be
a Dominican in the Dominican Order, and not at a fancy-dress ball;
and the diplomatic proposal appears to have been dropped.
Thomas of Aquino wanted to be a Friar. It was a staggering
fact to his contemporaries; and it is rather an intriguing fact
even to us; for this desire, limited literally and strictly
to this statement, was the one practical thing to which his
will was clamped with adamantine obstinacy till his death.
He would not be an Abbot; he would not be a Monk; he would not
even be a Prior or ruler in his own fraternity; he would not be
a prominent or important Friar; he would be a Friar. It is as if
Napoleon had insisted on remaining a private soldier all his life.
Something in this heavy, quiet, cultivated, rather academic
gentleman would not be satisfied till he was, by fixed authoritative
proclamation and official pronouncement, established and appointed
to be a Beggar. It is all the more interesting because, while he did
more than his duty a thousand times over, he was not at all like
a Beggar; nor at all likely to be a good Beggar. He had nothing
of the native vagabond about him, as had his great precursors;
he was not born with something of the wandering minstrel,
like St. Francis; or something of the tramping missionary,
like St. Dominic. But he insisted upon putting himself under
military orders, to do these things at the will of another,
if required. He may be compared with some of the more magnanimous
aristocrats who have enrolled themselves in revolutionary armies;
or some of the best of the poets and scholars who volunteered
as private soldiers in the Great War. Something in the courage
and consistency of Dominic and Francis had challenged his deep
sense of justice; and while remaining a very reasonable person,
and even a diplomatic one, he never let anything shake the iron
immobility of this one decision of his youth; nor was he to be turned
from his tall and towering ambition to take the lowest place.
The first effect of his decision, as we have seen, was much more
stimulating and even startling. The General of the Dominicans, under whom
Thomas had enrolled himself, was probably well aware of the diplomatic
attempts to dislodge him and the worldly difficulties of resisting them.
His expedient was to take his young follower out of Italy altogether;
bidding him proceed with a few other friars to Paris. There was
something prophetic even about this first progress of the travelling
teacher of the nations; for Paris was indeed destined to be in
some sense the goal of his spiritual journey; since it was there
that he was to deliver both his great defence of the Friars and his
great defiance to the antagonists of Aristotle. But this his first
journey to Paris was destined to be broken off very short indeed.
The friars had reached a turn of the road by a wayside fountain,
a little way north of Rome, when they were overtaken by a wild
cavalcade of captors, who seized on Thomas like brigands,
but who were in fact only rather needlessly agitated brothers.
He had a large number of brothers: perhaps only two were here involved.
Indeed he was the seventh; and friends of Birth Control may lament
that this philosopher was needlessly added to the noble line
of ruffians who kidnapped him. It was an odd affair altogether.
There is something quaint and picturesque in the idea of kidnapping
a begging friar, who might in a sense be called a runaway abbot.
There is a comic and tragic tangle in the motives and purposes of such
a trio of strange kinsmen. There is a sort of Christian cross-purposes
in the contrast between the feverish illusion of the importance
of things, always marking men who are called practical; and the much
more practical pertinacity of the man who is called theoretical.
Thus at least did those three strange brethren stagger or trail
along their tragic road, tied together, as it were, like criminal
and constable; only that the criminals were making the arrest.
So their figures are seen for an instant against the horizon of history;
brothers as sinister as any since Cain and Abel. For this queer outrage
in the great family of Aquino does really stand out symbolically,
as representing something that will forever make the Middle Ages a mystery
and a bewilderment; capable of sharply contrasted interpretations
like darkness and light. For in two of those men there raged,
we might say screamed, a savage pride of blood and blazonry of arms,
though they were princes of the most refined world of their time,
which would seem more suitable to a tribe dancing round a totem.
For the moment they had forgotten everything except the name of a family,
that is narrower than a tribe, and far narrower than a nation.
And the third figure of that trio, born of the same mother
and perhaps visibly one with the others in face or form,
had a conception of brotherhood broader than most modern democracy,
for it was not national but international; a faith in mercy and modesty
far deeper than any mere mildness of manners in the modern world;
and a drastic oath of poverty, which would now be counted quite
a mad exaggeration of the revolt against plutocracy and pride.
Out of the same Italian castle came two savages and one sage;
or one saint more pacific than most modern sages.
That is the double aspect confusing a hundred controversies.
That is what makes the riddle of the medieval age; that it was
not one age but two ages. We look into the moods of some men,
and it might be the Stone Age; we look into the minds of other men,
and they might be living in the Golden Age; in the most modern sort
of Utopia. There were always good men and bad men; but in this
time good men who were subtle lived with bad men who were simple.
They lived in the same family; they were brought up in the same nursery;
and they came out to struggle, as the brothers of Aquino struggled
by the wayside, when they dragged the new friar along the road
and shut him up in the castle on the hill.
When his relations tried to despoil him of his friar's frock he seems
to have laid about them in the fighting manner of his fathers,
and it would seem successfully, since this attempt was abandoned.
He accepted the imprisonment itself with his customary composure,
and probably did not mind very much whether he was left to philosophise
in a dungeon or in a cell. Indeed there is something in the way the whole
tale is told, which suggests that through a great part of that strange
abduction, he had been carried about like a lumbering stone statue.
Only one tale told of his captivity shows him merely in anger;
and that shows him angrier than he ever was before or after.
It struck the imagination of his own time for more important reasons;
but it has an interest that is psychological as well as moral.
For once in his life, for the first time and the last, Thomas of
Aquino was really hors de lui; riding a storm outside that tower
of intellect and contemplation in which he commonly lived.
And that was when his brothers introduced into his room some specially
gorgeous and painted courtesan, with the idea of surprising him
by a sudden temptation, or at least involving him in a scandal.
His anger was justified, even by less strict moral standards than his own;
for the meanness was even worse than the foulness of the expedient.
Even on the lowest grounds, he knew his brothers knew, and they
knew that he knew, that it was an insult to him as a gentleman
to suppose that he would break his pledge upon so base a provocation;
and he had behind him a far more terrible sensibility; all that huge
ambition of humility which was to him the voice of God out of heaven.
In this one flash alone we see that huge unwieldy figure in an attitude
of activity, or even animation; and he was very animated indeed.
He sprang from his seat and snatched a brand out of the fire,
and stood brandishing it like a flaming sword. The woman not
unnaturally shrieked and fled, which was all that he wanted;
but it is quaint to think of what she must have thought of that madman
of monstrous stature juggling with flames and apparently threatening
to burn down the house. All he did, however, was to stride after her
to the door and bang and bar it behind her; and then, with a sort
of impulse of violent ritual, he rammed the burning brand into the door,
blackening and blistering it with one big black sign of the cross.
Then he returned, and dropped it again into the fire; and sat down
on that seat of sedentary scholarship, that chair of philosophy,
that secret throne of contemplation, from which he never rose again.
Albert, the Swabian, rightly called the Great, was the founder
of modern science. He did more than any other man to prepare
that process, which has turned the alchemist into the chemist,
and the astrologer into the astronomer. It is odd that,
having been in his time, in this sense almost the first astronomer,
he now lingers in legend almost as the last astrologer.
Serious historians are abandoning the absurd notion that
the mediaeval Church persecuted all scientists as wizards.
It is very nearly the opposite of the truth. The world sometimes
persecuted them as wizards, and sometimes ran after them as wizards;
the sort of pursuing that is the reverse of persecuting.
The Church alone regarded them really and solely as scientists.
Many an enquiring cleric was charged with mere magic in
making his lenses and mirrors; he was charged by his rude
and rustic neighbours; and would probably have been charged
in exactly the same way if they had been Pagan neighbours
or Puritan neighbours or Seventh-Day Adventist neighbours.
But even then he stood a better chance when judged by
the Papacy, than if he had been merely lynched by the laity.
The Catholic Pontiff did not denounce Albertus Magnus as a magician.
It was the half-heathen tribes of the north who admired him
as a magician. It is the half-heathen tribes of the industrial
towns today, the readers of cheap dream-books, and quack pamphlets,
and newspaper prophets, who still admire him as an astrologer.
It is admitted that the range of his recorded knowledge,
of strictly material and mechanical facts, was amazing
in a man of his time. It is true that, in most other cases,
there was a certain limitation to the data of medieval science;
but this certainly had nothing to do with medieval religion.
For the data of Aristotle, and the great Greek civilisation,
were in many ways more limited still. But it is not really so much
a question of access to the facts, as of attitude to the facts.
Most of the Schoolmen, if informed by the only informants they
had that a unicorn has one horn or a salamander lives in the fire,
still used it more as an illustration of logic than an incident
of life. What they really said was, "If a Unicorn has one horn,
two unicorns have as many horns as one cow." And that has
not one inch the less a fact because the unicorn is a fable.
But with Albertus in medieval times, as with Aristotle
in ancient times, there did begin something like the idea
of emphasising the question: "But does the unicorn only have
one horn or the salamander a fire instead of a fireside?"
Doubtless when the social and geographical limits of medieval life
began to allow them to search the fire for salamanders or the desert
for unicorns, they had to modify many of their scientific ideas.
A fact which will expose them to the very proper scorn of a
generation of scientists which has just discovered that Newton
is nonsense, that space is limited, and that there is no such
thing as an atom.
This great German, known in his most famous period as a
professor in Paris, was previously for some time professor
at Cologne. In that beautiful Roman city, there gathered
round him in thousands the lovers of that extraordinary life;
the student life of the Middle Ages. They came together in great
groups called Nations; and the fact illustrates very well the
difference between medieval nationalism and modern nationalism.
For although there might any morning be a brawl between the Spanish
students and the Scottish students, or between the Flemish
and the French, and swords flash or stones fly on the most
purely patriotic principles, the fact remains that they had
all come to the same school to learn the same philosophy.
And though that might not prevent the starting of a quarrel,
it might have a great deal to do with the ending of it.
Before these motley groups of men from the ends of the earth,
the father of science unrolled his scroll of strange wisdom;
of sun and comet, of fish and bird. He was an Aristotelian
developing, as it were, the one experimental hint of Aristotle;
and in this he was entirely original. He cared less to be original
about the deeper matters of men and morals; about which he was
content to hand on a decent and Christianised Aristotelianism;
he was even in a sense ready to compromise upon the merely
metaphysical issue of the Nominalists and the Realists. He would
never have maintained alone the great war that was coming,
for a balanced and humanised Christianity; but when it came,
he was entirely on its side. He was called the Universal Doctor,
because of the range of his scientific studies; yet he was in
truth a specialist. The popular legend is never quite wrong;
if a man of science is a magician, he was a magician.
And the man of science has always been much more of a magician
than the priest; since he would "control the elements"
rather than submit to the Spirit who is more elementary
than the elements.
Among the students thronging into the lecture-rooms there was
one student, conspicuous by his tall and bulky figure, and completely
failing or refusing to be conspicuous for anything else.
He was so dumb in the debates that his fellows began to assume
an American significance in the word dumbness; for in that land
it is a synonym for dullness. It is clear that, before long,
even his imposing stature began to have only the ignominious
immensity of the big boy left behind in the lowest form.
He was called the Dumb Ox. He was the object, not merely
of mockery, but of pity. One good-natured student pitied
him so much as to try to help him with his lessons,
going over the elements of logic like an alphabet in a
horn-book. The dunce thanked him with pathetic politeness;
and the philanthropist went on swimmingly, till he came
to a passage about which he was himself a little doubtful;
about which, in point of fact, he was wrong. Whereupon the dunce,
with every appearance of embarrassment and disturbance,
pointed out a possible solution which happened to be right.
The benevolent student was left staring, as at a monster,
at this mysterious lump of ignorance and intelligence;
and strange whispers began to run round the schools.
A regular religious biographer of Thomas Aquinas (who, needless
to say, was the dunce in question) has said that by the end
of this interview "his love of truth overcame his humility";
which, properly understood, is precisely true. But it does not,
in the secondary psychological and social sense, describe all
the welter of elements that went on within that massive head.
All the relatively few anecdotes about Aquinas have a very
peculiar vividness if we visualise the type of man; and this
is an excellent example. Amid those elements was something
of the difficulty which the generalising intellect has in adapting
itself suddenly to a tiny detail of daily life; there was something
of the shyness of really well-bred people about showing off;
there was something even, perhaps, of that queer paralysis,
and temptation to prefer even misunderstandings to long explanations,
which led Sir James Barrie, in his amusing sketch, to allow
himself to be saddled with a Brother Henry he never possessed,
rather than exert himself to put in a word of warning.
These other elements doubtless worked with the very
extraordinary humility of this very extraordinary man;
but another element worked with his equally unquestionable
"love of truth" in bringing the misunderstanding to an end.
It is an element that must never be left out of the make-up
of St. Thomas. However dreamy or distracted or immersed
in theories he might be, he had any amount of Common Sense;
and by the time it came, not only to being taught, but to being
taught wrong, there was something in him that said sharply,
"Oh, this has got to stop!"
It seems probable that it was Albertus Magnus himself, the lecturer
and learned teacher of all these youths, who first suspected something of
the kind. He gave Thomas small jobs to do, of annotation or exposition;
he persuaded him to banish his bashfulness so as to take part in at
least one debate. He was a very shrewd old man and had studied
the habits of other animals besides the salamander and the unicorn.
He had studied many specimens of the most monstrous of all monstrosities;
that is called Man. He knew the signs and marks of the sort of man,
who is in an innocent way something of a monster among men. He was too
good a schoolmaster not to know that the dunce is not always a dunce.
He learned with amusement that this dunce had been nicknamed the Dumb Ox
by his school-fellows. All that is natural enough; but it does
not take away the savour of something rather strange and symbolic,
about the extraordinary emphasis with which he spoke at last.
For Aquinas was still generally known only as one obscure and obstinately
unresponsive pupil, among many more brilliant and promising pupils,
when the great Albert broke silence with his famous cry and prophecy;
"You call him a Dumb Ox: I tell you this Dumb Ox shall bellow so loud
that his bellowings will fill the world".
To Albertus Magnus. as to Aristotle or Augustine or any number
of other and older teachers, St. Thomas was always ready,
with the hearty sort of humility, to give thanks for all his thinking.
None the less, his own thinking was an advance on Albertus and
the other Aristotelians, just as it was an advance on Augustine
and the Augustinians. Albert had drawn attention to the direct
study of natural facts, if only through fables like the unicorn
and the salamander but the monster called Man awaited a much
more subtle and flexible vivi-section. The two men, however,
became close friends and their friendship counts for a great deal
in this central fight of the Middle Ages. For, as we shall see,
the rehabilitation of Aristotle was a revolution almost
as revolutionary as the exaltation of Dominic and Francis;
and St. Thomas was destined to play a striking part in both.
It will be realised that the Aquino family had ultimately
abandoned its avenging pursuit of its ugly duckling; who, as a
black friar, should perhaps be called its black sheep.
Of that escape some picturesque stories are told.
The black sheep generally profits at last by quarrels among
the white sheep of a family. They begin by quarrelling with him,
but they end by quarrelling with each other. There is a rather
confusing account concerning which members of his family came
over to his side, while he was still imprisoned in the tower.
But it is a fact that he was very fond of his sisters, and therefore
probably not a fable that it was they who engineered his escape.
According to the story, they rigged up a rope to the top of the tower,
attached to a big basket, and it must have been rather a big
basket if he was indeed lowered in this fashion from his prison,
and escaped into the world. Anyhow, he did escape by energy,
external or internal. But it was only an individual energy.
The world was still pursuing and persecuting the Friars, quite as
much as when they fled along the road to Rome. Thomas Aquinas
had the good fortune to gather under the shadow of the one great
outstanding Friar, whose respectability it was difficult to dispute,
the learned and orthodox Albertus; but even he and his were soon
troubled by the growing storm that threatened the new popular
movements in the Church. Albertus was summoned to Paris,
to receive the degree of a Doctor; but everyone knew that
every move in that game had the character of a challenge.
He made only the request, which probably looked like an
eccentric request, that he should take his Dumb Ox with him.
They set out, like ordinary Friars or along religious vagabonds;
they slept in such monasteries as they could find; and finally
in the monastery of St. James in Paris, where Thomas met another
Friar who was also another friend.
Perhaps under the shadow of the storm that menaced
all Friars, Bonaventure, the Franciscan, grew into so great a
friendship with Thomas the Dominican, that their contemporaries
compared them to David and Jonathan. The point is of some interest;
because it would be quite easy to represent the Franciscan
and the Dominican as flatly contradicting each other.
The Franciscan may be represented as the Father of all the Mystics;
and the Mystics can be represented as men who maintain that the final
fruition or joy of the soul is rather a sensation than a thought.
The motto of the Mystics has always been, "Taste and see".
Now St. Thomas also began by saving, "Taste and see"; but he said
it of the first rudimentary impressions of the human animal.
It might well be maintained that the Franciscan puts Taste
last and the Dominican puts it first. It might be said that
the Thomist begins with something solid like the taste of an apple,
and afterwards deduces a divine life for the intellect;
while the Mystic exhausts the intellect first, and says finally
that the sense of God is something like the taste of an apple.
A common enemy might claim that St. Thomas begins with the taste
of fruit and St. Bonaventure ends with the taste of fruit.
But they are both right; if I may say so, it is a privilege of people
who contradict each other in their cosmos to be both right.
The Mystic is right in saying that the relation of God and Man
is essentially a love-story; the pattern and type of all
love-stories. The Dominican rationalist is equally right in
saying that the intellect is at home in the topmost heavens;
and that the appetite for truth may outlast and even devour
all the duller appetites of man.
At the moment Aquinas and Bonaventure were encouraged in the possibility
that they were both right; by the almost universal agreement that they
were both wrong. It was in any case a time of wild disturbance,
and, as is common in such times, those who were trying to put
things right were most vigorously accused of putting things wrong.
Nobody knew who would win in that welter: Islam, or the Manichees
of the Midi; or the two-faced and mocking Emperor; or the Crusades;
or the old Orders of Christendom. But some men had a very vivid
feeling that everything was breaking up; and that all the recent
experiments or excesses were part of the same social dissolution;
and there were two things that such men regarded as signs of ruin;
one was the awful apparition of Aristotle out of the East, a sort
of Greek god supported by Arabian worshippers; and the other was
the new freedom of the Friars. It was the opening of the monastery
and the scattering of the monks to wander over the world. The general
feeling that they wandered like sparks from a furnace hitherto contained;
the furnace of the abnormal love of God: the sense that they would
utterly unbalance the common people with the counsels of perfection;
that they would drift into being demagogues; all this finally
burst out in a famous book called The Perils of the Latter Times,
by a furious reactionary, William de St. Amour. It challenged
the French King and the Pope, so that they established an enquiry.
And Aquinas and Bonaventure, the two incongruous friends, with their
respectively topsy-turvy universes, went up to Rome together,
to defend the freedom of the Friars.
Thomas Aquinas defended the great vow of his youth, for freedom
and for the poor; and it was probably the topmost moment of his
generally triumphant career; for he turned back the whole backward
movement of his time. Responsible authorities have said that,
but for him, the whole great popular movement of the Friars might
have been destroyed. With this popular victory the shy and awkward
student finally becomes a historical character and a public man.
After that, he was identified with the Mendicant Orders. But while
St. Thomas may be said to have made his name in the defence of the
Mendicant Orders against the reactionaries, who took the same view
of them as his own family had taken, there is generally a difference
between a man making his name and a man really doing his work.
The work of Thomas Aquinas was yet to come; but less shrewd
observers than he could already see that it was coming.
Broadly speaking, the danger was the danger of the orthodox,
or those who too easily identify the old order with the orthodox,
forcing a final and conclusive condemnation of Aristotle. There had
already been rash and random condemnations to that effect,
issued here and there, and the pressure of the narrower Augustinians
upon the Pope and the principal judges became daily more pressing.
The peril had appeared, not unnaturally, because of the historical
and geographical accident of the Moslem proximity to the culture
of Byzantium. The Arabs had got hold of the Greek manuscripts
before the Latins who were the true heirs of the Greeks. And Moslems,
though not very orthodox Moslems, were turning Aristotle into a pantheist
philosophy still less acceptable to orthodox Christians. This second
controversy, however, requires more explanation than the first.
As is remarked on an introductory page, most modern people do know
that St. Francis at least was a liberator of large sympathies;
that, whatever their positive view of medievalism, the Friars
were in a relative sense a popular movement, pointing to greater
fraternity and freedom; and a very little further information
would inform them that this was every bit as true of the Dominican
as of the Franciscan Friars. Nobody now is particularly likely
to start up in defence of feudal abbots or fixed and stationary monks,
against such impudent innovators as St. Francis and St. Thomas. We may
therefore be allowed to summarise briefly the great debate
about the Friars, though it shook all Christendom in its day.
But the greater debate about Aristotle presents a greater difficulty;
because there are modern misconceptions about it which can only be
approached with a little more elaboration.
Perhaps there is really no such thing as a Revolution
recorded in history. What happened was always
a Counter-Revolution. Men were always rebelling against
the last rebels; or even repenting of the last rebellion.
This could be seen in the most casual contemporary fashions,
if the fashionable mind had not fallen into the habit of seeing
the very latest rebel as rebelling against all ages at once.
The Modern Girl with the lipstick and the cocktail is as much
a rebel against the Woman's Rights Woman of the '80's,
with her stiff stick-up collars and strict teetotalism.
as the latter was a rebel against the Early Victorian lady of the
languid waltz tunes and the album full of quotations from Byron:
or as the last, again, was a rebel against a Puritan mother to whom
the waltz was a wild orgy and Byron the Bolshevist of his age.
Trace even the Puritan mother back through history and she represents
a rebellion against the Cavalier laxity of the English Church,
which was at first a rebel against the Catholic civilisation,
which had been a rebel against the Pagan civilisation.
Nobody but a lunatic could pretend that these things were a progress;
for they obviously go first one way and then the other.
But whichever is right, one thing is certainly wrong; and that is
the modern habit of looking at them only from the modern end.
For that is only to see the end of the tale; they rebel against
they know not what, because it arose they know not when;
intent only on its ending, they are ignorant of its beginning;
and therefore of its very being. The difference between the smaller
cases and the larger, is that in the latter there is really so huge
a human upheaval that men start from it like men in a new world;
and that very novelty enables them to go on very long;
and generally to go on too long. It is because these things
start with a vigorous revolt that the intellectual impetus
lasts long enough to make them seem like a survival.
An excellent example of this is the real story of the revival
and the neglect of Aristotle. By the end of the medieval time,
Aristotelianism did eventually grow stale. Only a very fresh
and successful novelty ever gets quite so stale as that.
When the moderns, drawing the blackest curtain of obscurantism
that ever obscured history, decided that nothing mattered much
before the Renaissance and the Reformation, they instantly
began their modern career by falling into a big blunder.
It was the blunder about Platonism. They found, hanging about
the courts of the swaggering princes of the sixteenth century
(which was as far back in history as they were allowed to go)
certain anti-clerical artists and scholars who said they
were bored with Aristotle and were supposed to be secretly
indulging in Plato. The moderns, utterly ignorant of the whole
story of the medievals, instantly fell into the trap.
They assumed that Aristotle was some crabbed antiquity and tyranny
from the black back of the Dark Ages. and that Plato was an
entirely new Pagan pleasure never yet tasted by Christian men.
Father Knox has shown in what a startling state of innocence
is the mind of Mr. H. L. Mencken, for instance, upon this point.
In fact, of course. the story is exactly the other way round.
If anything, it was Platonism that was the old orthodoxy.
It was Aristotelianism that was the very modern revolution.
And the leader of that modern revolution was the man who is
the subject of this book.
The truth is that the historical Catholic Church began by
being Platonist; by being rather too Platonist. Platonism was
in that golden Greek air that was breathed by the first great
Greek theologians. The Christian Fathers were much more like
the NeoPlatonists than were the scholars of the Renaissance;
who were only Neo-Neo-Platonists. For Chrysostom or Basil it
was as ordinary and normal to think in terms of the Logos,
or the Wisdom which is the aim of philosophers, as it is to
any men of any religion today to talk about social problems
or progress or the economic crisis throughout the world.
St. Augustine followed a natural mental evolution when he was
a Platonist before he was a Manichean, and a Manichean before
he was a Christian. And it was exactly in that last association
that the first faint hint, of the danger of being too Platonist,
may be seen.
From the Renaissance to the nineteenth century, the Moderns have had
an almost monstrous love of the Ancients. In considering medieval life,
they could never regard the Christians as anything but the pupils
of the Pagans; of Plato in ideas, or Aristotle in reason and science.
It was not so. On some points, even from the most monotonously
modern standpoint, Catholicism was centuries ahead of Platonism
or Aristotelianism. We can see it still, for instance, in the tiresome
tenacity of Astrology. On that matter the philosophers were all
in favour of superstition; and the saints and all such superstitious
people were against superstition. But even the great saints found
it difficult to get disentangled from this superstition. Two points
were always put by those suspicious of the Aristotelianism of Aquinas;
and they sound to us now very quaint and comic, taken together.
One was the view that the stars are personal beings, governing our lives:
the other the great general theory that men have one mind between them;
a view obviously opposed to immortality; that is, to individuality.
Both linger among the Moderns: so strong is still the tyranny
of the Ancients. Astrology sprawls over the Sunday papers, and the
other doctrine has its hundredth form in what is called Communism:
or the Soul of the Hive.
For on one preliminary point, this position must not be misunderstood.
When we praise the practical value of the Aristotelian Revolution, and the
originality of Aquinas in leading it, we do not mean that the Scholastic
philosophers before him had not been philosophers, or had not been
highly philosophical, or had not been in touch with ancient philosophy.
In so far as there was ever a bad break in philosophical history,
it was not before St. Thomas, or at the beginning of medieval history;
it was after St. Thomas and at the beginning of modern history.
The great intellectual tradition that comes down to us from Pythagoras
and Plato was never interrupted or lost through such trifles as the sack
of Rome, the triumph of Attila or all the barbarian invasions of
the Dark Ages. It was only lost after the introduction of printing,
the discovery of America, the founding of the Royal Society and
all the enlightenment of the Renaissance and the modern world.
It was there, if anywhere, that there was lost or impatiently snapped
the long thin delicate thread that had descended from distant antiquity;
the thread of that unusual human hobby; the habit of thinking.
This is proved by the fact that the printed books of this later
period largely had to wait for the eighteenth century, or the end of
the seventeenth century, to find even the names of the new philosophers;
who were at the best a new kind of philosophers. But the decline
of the Empire, the Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages, though too
much tempted to neglect what was opposed to Platonic philosophy,
had never neglected philosophy. In that sense St. Thomas,
like most other very original men, has a long and clear pedigree.
He himself is constantly referring back to the authorities from
St. Augustine to St. Anselm, and from St. Anselm to St. Albert,
and even when he differs, he also defers.
A very learned Anglican once said to me, not perhaps without
a touch of tartness, "I can't understand why everybody talks as if
Thomas Aquinas were the beginning of the Scholastic philosophy.
I could understand their saying he was the end of it."
Whether or no the comment was meant to be tart, we may be sure
that the reply of St. Thomas would have been perfectly urbane.
And indeed it would be easy to answer with a certain placidity,
that in his Thomist language the end of a thing does not mean
its destruction, but its fulfilment. No Thomist will complain,
if Thomism is the end of our philosophy, in the sense in which God
is the end of our existence. For that does not mean that we cease
to exist, but that we become as perennial as the philosophia perennis.
Putting this claim on one side, however, it is important to
remember that my distinguished interlocutor was perfectly right,
in that there had been whole dynasties of doctrinal philosophers
before Aquinas, leading up to the day of the great revolt
of the Aristotelians. Nor was even that revolt a thing entirely
abrupt and unforeseen. An able writer in the Dublin Review
not long ago pointed out that in some respects the whole nature
of metaphysics had advanced a long way since Aristotle, by the time
it came to Aquinas. And that it is no disrespect to the primitive
and gigantic genius of the Stagirite to say that in some respects
he was really but a rude and rough founder of philosophy,
compared with some of the subsequent subtleties of medievalism;
that the Greek gave a few grand hints which the Scholastics developed
into the most delicate fine shades. This may be an overstatement,
but there is a truth in it. Anyhow, it is certain that even
in Aristotelian philosophy, let alone Platonic philosophy,
there was already a tradition of highly intelligent interpretation.
If that delicacy afterwards degenerated into hair-splitting, it
was none the less delicate hairsplitting; and work requiring
very scientific tools.
What made the Aristotelian Revolution really revolutionary was the fact
that it was really religious. It is the fact, so fundamental that I
thought it well to lay it down in the first few pages of this book;
that the revolt was largely a revolt of the most Christian elements
in Christendom. St. Thomas, every bit as much as St. Francis,
felt subconsciously that the hold of his people was slipping
on the solid Catholic doctrine and discipline, worn smooth by
more than a thousand years of routine; and that the Faith needed
to be shown under a new light and dealt with from another angle.
But he had no motive except the desire to make it popular
for the salvation of the people. It was true, broadly speaking,
that for some time past it had been too Platonist to be popular.
It needed something like the shrewd and homely touch of
Aristotle to turn it again into a religion of common sense.
Both the motive and the method are illustrated in the war of Aquinas
against the Augustinians.
First, it must be remembered that the Greek influence continued
to flow from the Greek Empire; or at least from the centre of the
Roman Empire which was in the Greek city of Byzantium, and no longer
in Rome. That influence was Byzantine in every good and bad sense;
like Byzantine art, it was severe and mathematical and a little terrible;
like Byzantine etiquette, it was Oriental and faintly decadent. We owe
to the learning of Mr. Christopher Dawson much enlightenment upon the way
in which Byzantium slowly stiffened into a sort of Asiatic theocracy,
more like that which served the Sacred Emperor in China. But even the
unlearned can see the difference, in the way in which Eastern Christianity
flattened everything, as it flattened the faces of the images into icons.
It became a thing of patterns rather than pictures; and it made definite
and destructive war upon statues. Thus we see, strangely enough,
that the East was the land of the Cross and the West was the land
of the Crucifix. The Greeks were being dehumanised by a radiant symbol,
while the Goths were being humanised by an instrument of torture.
Only the West made realistic pictures of the greatest of all the tales
out of the East. Hence the Greek element in Christian theology tended
more and more to be a sort of dried up Platonism; a thing of diagrams
and abstractions; to the last indeed noble abstractions, but not
sufficiently touched by that great thing that is by definition almost
the opposite of abstraction: Incarnation. Their Logos was the Word;
but not the Word made Flesh. In a thousand very subtle ways,
often escaping doctrinal definition, this spirit spread over the world
of Christendom from the place where the Sacred Emperor sat under his
golden mosaics; and the flat pavement of the Roman Empire was at last
a sort of smooth pathway for Mahomet. For Islam was the ultimate
fulfilment of the Iconoclasts. Long before that, however, there was
this tendency to make the Cross merely decorative like the Crescent;
to make it a pattern like the Greek key or the Wheel of Buddha. But there
is something passive about such a world of patterns, and the Greek Key
does not open any door, while the Wheel of Buddha always moves round
and never moves on.
Partly through these negative influences, partly through a necessary
and noble asceticism which sought to emulate the awful standard
of the martyrs, the earlier Christian ages had been excessively
anti-corporeal and too near the danger-line of Manichean mysticism.
But there was far less danger in the fact that the saints
macerated the body than in the fact that the sages neglected it.
Granted all the grandeur of Augustine's contribution to Christianity,
there was in a sense a more subtle danger in Augustine the Platonist
than even in Augustine the Manichee. There came from it a mood
which unconsciously committed the heresy of dividing the substance of
the Trinity. It thought of God too exclusively as a Spirit who purifies
or a Saviour who redeems; and too little as a Creator who creates.
That is why men like Aquinas thought it right to correct Plato by
an appeal to Aristotle; Aristotle who took things as he found them,
just as Aquinas accepted things as God created them. In all the work
of St. Thomas the world of positive creation is perpetually present.
Humanly speaking, it was he who saved the human element in
Christian theology, if he used for convenience certain elements
in heathen philosophy. Only, as has already been urged, the human
element is also the Christian one.
The panic upon the Aristotelian peril, that had passed across the high
places of the Church, was probably a dry wind from the desert.
It was really filled rather with fear of Mahomet than fear
of Aristotle. And this was ironic, because there was really much more
difficulty in reconciling Aristotle with Mahomet than in reconciling
him with Christ. Islam is essentially a simple creed for simple men;
and nobody can ever really turn pantheism into a simple creed.
It is at once too abstract and too complicated. There are
simple believers in a personal God; and there are atheists more
simple-minded than any believers in a personal God. But few can,
in mere simplicity, accept a godless universe as a god.
And while the Moslem, as compared with the Christian, had perhaps
a less human God, he had if possible a more personal God. The will
of Allah was very much of a will, and could not be turned into
a stream of tendency. On all that cosmic and abstract side
the Catholic was more accommodating than the Moslem--up to a point.
The Catholic could admit at least that Aristotle was right about
the impersonal elements of a personal God. Hence, we may say
broadly of the Moslem philosophers, that those who became
good philosophers became bad Moslems. It is not altogether
unnatural that many bishops and doctors feared that the Thomists
might become good philosophers and bad Christians. But there
were also many, of the strict school of Plato and Augustine,
who stoutly denied that they were even good philosophers.
Between those rather incongruous passions, the love of Plato
and the fear of Mahomet, there was a moment when the prospects
of any Aristotelian culture in Christendom looked very dark indeed.
Anathema after anathema was thundered from high places;
and under the shadow of the persecution, as so often happens,
it seemed for a moment that barely one or two figures stood alone
in the storm-swept area. They were both in the black and white
of the Dominicans; for Albertus and Aquinas stood firm.
In that sort of combat there is always confusion; and majorities
change into minorities and back again, as if by magic. It is always
difficult to date the turn of the tide, which seems to be a welter
of eddies; the very dates seeming to overlap and confuse the crisis.
But the change, from the moment when the two Dominicans stood alone
to the moment when the whole Church at last wheeled into line
with them, may perhaps be found at about the moment when they
were practically brought before a hostile but a not unjust judge.
Stephen Tempier, the Bishop of Paris, was apparently a rather
fine specimen of the old fanatical Churchman, who thought
that admiring Aristotle was a weakness likely to be followed by
adoring Apollo. He was also, by a piece of bad luck, one of the old
social conservatives, who had intensely resented the popular revolution
of the Preaching Friars. But he was an honest man; and Thomas Aquinas
never asked for anything but permission to address honest men.
All around him there were other Aristotelian revolutionaries
of a much more dubious sort. There was Siger, the sophist
from Brabant, who learned all his Aristotelianism from the Arabs;
and had an ingenious theory about how an Arabian agnostic could
also be a Christian. There were a thousand young men of the sort
that had shouted for Abelard; full of the youth of the thirteenth
century and drunken with the Greek wine of Stagira. Over against them,
lowering and implacable, was the old Puritan party of the Augustinians;
only too delighted to class the rationalistic Albert and Thomas
with equivocal Moslem meta-physicians.
It would seem that the triumph of Thomas was really a personal triumph.
He withdrew not a single one of his propositions; though it is said
that the reactionary Bishop did condemn some of them after his death.
On the whole, however, Aquinas convinced most of his critics that he was
quite as good a Catholic as they were. There was a sequel of squabbles
between the Religious Orders, following upon this controversial crisis.
But it is probably true to say that the fact, that a man like Aquinas
had managed even partially to satisfy a man like Tempier, was the end
of the essential quarrel. What was already familiar to the few
became familiar to the many; that an Aristotelian could really
be a Christian. Another fact assisted in the common conversion.
It rather curiously resembles the story of the translation of the Bible;
and the alleged Catholic suppression of the Bible. Behind the scenes,
where the Pope was much more tolerant than the Paris Bishop,
the friends of Aquinas had been hard at work producing a new
translation of Aristotle. It demonstrated that in many ways
the heretical translation had been a very heretical translation.
With the final consummation of this work, we may say that the great Greek
philosophy entered finally into the system of Christendom. The process
has been half humourously described as the Baptism of Aristotle.
We have all heard of the humility of the man of science;
of many who were very genuinely humble; and of some who were
very proud of their humility. It will be the somewhat too
recurrent burden of this brief study that Thomas Aquinas
really did have the humility of the man of science;
as a special variant of the humility of the saint.
It is true that he did not himself contribute anything concrete
in the experiment or detail of physical science; in this,
it may be said, he even lagged behind the last generation,
and was far less of an experimental scientist than his tutor
Albertus Magnus. But for all that, he was historically a great
friend to the freedom of science. The principles he laid down,
properly understood, are perhaps the best that can be produced
for protecting science from mere obscurantist persecution.
For instance, in the matter of the inspiration of Scripture,
he fixed first on the obvious fact, which was forgotten by four
furious centuries of sectarian battle, that the meaning
of Scripture is very far from self-evident and that we
must often interpret it in the light of other truths.
If a literal interpretation is really and flatly contradicted
by an obvious fact, why then we can only say that the
literal interpretation must be a false interpretation.
But the fact must really be an obvious fact. And unfortunately,
nineteenth century scientists were just as ready to jump to
the conclusion that any guess about nature was an obvious fact,
as were seventeenth-century sectarians to jump to the conclusion
that any guess about Scripture was the obvious explanation.
Thus, private theories about what the Bible ought to mean,
and premature theories about what the world ought to mean,
have met in loud and widely advertised controversy,
especially in the Victorian time; and this clumsy collision
of two very impatient forms of ignorance was known as the quarrel
of Science and Religion.
But St. Thomas had the scientific humility in this very vivid
and special sense; that he was ready to take the lowest place;
for the examination of the lowest things. He did not,
like a modern specialist, study the worm as if it were the world;
but he was willing to begin to study the reality of the world in the
reality of the worm. His Aristotelianism simply meant that the study
of the humblest fact will lead to the study of the highest truth.
That for him the process was logical and not biological, was concerned
with philosophy rather than science, does not alter the essential
idea that he believed in beginning at the bottom of the ladder.
But he also gave, by his view of Scripture and Science,
and other questions, a sort of charter for pioneers more purely
practical than himself. He practically said that if they could
really prove their practical discoveries, the traditional
interpretation of Scripture must give way before those discoveries.
He could hardly, as the common phrase goes, say fairer than that.
If the matter had been left to him, and men like him, there never
would have been any quarrel between Science and Religion. He did
his very best to map out two provinces for them, and to trace
a just frontier between them.
It is often cheerfully remarked that Christianity has failed,
by which is meant that it has never had that sweeping,
imperial and imposed supremacy, which has belonged to each of
the great revolutions, every one of which has subsequently failed.
There was never a moment when men could say that every man was
a Christian; as they might say for several months that every
man was a Royalist or a Republican or a Communist. But if sane
historians want to understand the sense in which the Christian
character has succeeded, they could not find a better case
than the massive moral pressure of a man like St. Thomas,
in support of the buried rationalism of the heathens, which had
as yet only been dug up for the amusement of the heretics.
It was, quite strictly and exactly, because a new kind
of man was conducting rational enquiry in a new kind of way,
that men forgot the curse that had fallen on the temples
of the dead demons and the palaces of the dead despots;
forgot even the new fury out of Arabia against which they
were fighting for their lives; because the man who was asking
them to return to sense, or to return to their senses,
was not a sophist but a saint. Aristotle had described
the magnanimous man, who is great and knows that he is great.
But Aristotle would never have recovered his own greatness,
but for the miracle that created the more magnanimous man;
who is great and knows that he is small.
There is a certain historical importance in what some would
call the heaviness of the style employed. It carries a curious
impression of candour, which really did have, I think,
a considerable effect upon contemporaries. The saint has sometimes
been called a sceptic. The truth is that he was very largely
tolerated as a sceptic because he was obviously a saint.
When he seemed to stand up as a stubborn Aristotelian,
hardly distinguishable from the Arabian heretics, I do seriously
believe that what protected him was very largely the prodigious
power of his simplicity and his obvious goodness and love
of truth. Those who went out against the haughty confidence
of the heretics were stopped and brought up all standing,
against a sort of huge humility which was like a mountain:
or perhaps like that immense valley that is the mould of a mountain.
Allowing for all medieval conventions, we can feel that with
the other innovators, this was not always so. The others,
from Abelard down to Siger of Brabant, have never quite lost,
in the long process of history, a faint air of showing off.
Nobody could feel for a moment that Thomas Aquinas was showing off.
The very dullness of diction, of which some complain,
was enormously convincing. He could have given wit as well as wisdom;
but he was so prodigiously in earnest that he gave his wisdom
without his wit.
After the hour of triumph came the moment of peril. It is always so with
alliances, and especially because Aquinas was fighting on two fronts.
His main business was to defend the Faith against the abuse of Aristotle;
and he boldly did it by supporting the use of Aristotle. He knew
perfectly well that armies of atheists and anarchists were roaring
applause in the background at his Aristotelian victory over all he held
most dear. Nevertheless, it was never the existence of atheists,
any more than Arabs or Aristotelian pagans, that disturbed the
extraordinary controversial composure of Thomas Aquinas. The real
peril that followed on the victory he had won for Aristotle was vividly
presented in the curious case of Siger of Brabant; and it is well
worth study, for anyone who would begin to comprehend the strange
history of Christendom. It is marked by one rather queer quality;
which has always been the unique note of the Faith, though it is not
noticed by its modern enemies, and rarely by its modern friends.
It is the fact symbolised in the legend of Antichrist, who was
the double of Christ; in the profound proverb that the Devil is
the ape of God. It is the fact that falsehood is never so false
as when it is very nearly true. It is when the stab comes near
the nerve of truth, that the Christian conscience cries out in pain.
And Siger of Brabant, following on some of the Arabian Aristotelians,
advanced a theory which most modern newspaper readers would instantly
have declared to be the same as the theory of St. Thomas. That was
what finally roused St. Thomas to his last and most emphatic protest.
He had won his battle for a wider scope of philosophy and science;
he had cleared the ground for a general understanding about faith
and enquiry; an understanding that has generally been observed
among Catholics, and certainly never deserted without disaster.
It was the idea that the scientist should go on exploring and
experimenting freely. so long as he did not claim an infallibility
and finality which it was against his own principles to claim.
Meanwhile the Church should go on developing and defining,
about supernatural things, so long as she did not claim a right to alter
the deposit of faith, which it was against her own principles to claim.
And when he had said this, Siger of Brabant got up and said something
so horribly like it, and so horribly unlike, that (like the Antichrist)
he might have deceived the very elect.
Siger of Brabant said this: the Church must be right theologically,
but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths;
the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the
natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world.
While we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity
is all nonsense; but then, when we remember that we are Christians,
we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense.
In other words, Siger of Brabant split the human head in two,
like the blow in an old legend of battle; and declared that a man
has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with
the other may utterly disbelieve. To many this would at least seem
like a parody of Thomism. As a fact, it was the assassination
of Thomism. It was not two ways of finding the same truth;
it was an untruthful way of pretending that there are two truths.
And it is extraordinarily interesting to note that this is the one
occasion when the Dumb Ox really came out like a wild bull.
When he stood up to answer Siger of Brabant, he was altogether
transfigured, and the very style of his sentences, which is
a thing like the tone of a man's voice, is suddenly altered.
He had never been angry with any of the enemies who disagreed
with him. But these enemies had attempted the worst treachery:
they had made him agree with them.
Those who complain that theologians draw fine distinctions
could hardly find a better example of their own folly.
In fact, a fine distinction can be a flat contradiction.
It was notably so in this case. St. Thomas was willing
to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths,
precisely because he was sure there was only one truth.
Because the Faith was the one truth, nothing discovered in nature
could ultimately contradict the Faith. Because the Faith
was the one truth, nothing really deduced from the Faith
could ultimately contradict the facts. It was in truth
a curiously daring confidence in the reality of his religion:
and though some may linger to dispute it, it been justified.
The scientific facts, which were supposed to contradict
the Faith in the nineteenth century, are nearly all of them
regarded as unscientific fictions in the twentieth century.
Even the materialists have fled from materialism; and those who
lectured us about determinism in psychology are already talking
about indeterminism in matter. But whether his confidence
was right or wrong, it was specially and supremely a confidence
that there is one truth which cannot contradict itself.
And this last group of enemies suddenly sprang up, to tell
him they entirely agreed with him in saving that there are
two contradictory truths. Truth, in the medieval phrase,
carried two faces under one hood; and these double-faced sophists
practically dared to suggest that it was the Dominican hood.
So, in his last battle and for the first time, he fought
as with a battle-axe. There is a ring in the words altogether
beyond the almost impersonal patience he maintained in debate
with so many enemies. "Behold our refutation of the error.
It is not based on documents of faith, but on the reasons
and statements of the philosophers themselves. If then anyone
there be who, boastfully taking pride in his supposed wisdom,
wishes to challenge what we have written, let him not do it
in some corner nor before children who are powerless to decide
on such difficult matters. Let him reply openly if he dare.
He shall find me then confronting him, and not only my
negligible self, but many another whose study is truth.
We shall do battle with his errors or bring a cure to his ignorance."
The Dumb Ox is bellowing now; like one at bay and yet terrible
and towering over all the baying pack. We have already noted why,
in this one quarrel with Siger of Brabant, Thomas Aquinas let
loose such thunders of purely moral passion; it was because
the whole work of his life was being betrayed behind his back,
by those who had used his victories over the reactionaries.
The point at the moment is that this is perhaps his one moment of
personal passion, save for a single flash in the troubles of his youth:
and he is once more fighting his enemies with a firebrand.
And yet, even in this isolated apocalypse of anger, there is one
phrase that may be commended for all time to men who are angry
with much less cause. If there is one sentence that could be
carved in marble, as representing the calmest and most enduring
rationality of his unique intelligence, it is a sentence
which came pouring out with all the rest of this molten lava.
If there is one phrase that stands before history as typical
of Thomas Aquinas, it is that phrase about his own argument:
"It is not based on documents of faith, but on the reasons and
statements of the philosophers themselves." Would that all Orthodox
doctors in deliberation were as reasonable as Aquinas in anger!
Would that all Christian apologists would remember that maxim;
and write it up in large letters on the wall, before they nail any
theses there. At the top of his fury, Thomas Aquinas understands,
what so many defenders of orthodoxy will not understand.
It is no good to tell an atheist that he is an atheist; or to charge
a denier of immortality with the infamy of denying it; or to imagine
that one can force an opponent to admit he is wrong, by proving
that he is wrong on somebody else's principles, but not on his own.
After the great example of St. Thomas, the principle stands, or ought
always to have stood established; that we must either not argue
with a man at all, or we must argue on his grounds and not ours.
We may do other things instead of arguing, according to our views
of what actions are morally permissible; but if we argue we must argue
"On the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves."
This is the common sense in a saying attributed to a friend
of St. Thomas, the great St. Louis, King of France, which shallow
people quote as a sample of fanaticism; the sense of which is, that I
must either argue with an infidel as a real philosopher can argue,
or else "thrust a sword through his body as far as it will go."
A real philosopher (even of the opposite school) will be the first
to agree that St. Louis was entirely philosophical.
So, in the last great controversial crisis of his theological campaign,
Thomas Aquinas contrived to give his friends and enemies
not only a lesson in theology, but a lesson in controversy.
But it was in fact his last controversy. He had been a man
with a huge controversial appetite, a thing that exists
in some men and not others, in saints and in sinners.
But after this great and victorious duel with Siger of Brabant,
he was suddenly overwhelmed with a desire for silence and repose.
He said one strange thing about this mood of his to a friend,
which will fall into its more appropriate place elsewhere.
He fell back on the extreme simplicities of his monastic round
and seemed to desire nothing but a sort of permanent retreat.
A request came to him from the Pope that he should set out upon
some further mission of diplomacy or disputation; and he made
ready to obey. But before he had gone many miles on the journey,
he was dead.
CHESTERTON-St Thomas Aquinas - I ON TWO FRIARS