CHESTERTON-St Thomas Aquinas - THE ARISTOTELIAN REVOLUTION
There is one casual anecdote about St. Thomas Aquinas which
illuminates him like a lightning-flash, not only without but within.
For it not only shows him as a character, and even as a comedy character.
and shows the colours of his period and social background;
but also, as if for an instant, makes a transparency of his mind.
It is a trivial incident which occurred one day, when he was reluctantly
dragged from his work, and we might almost say from his play.
For both were for him found in the unusual hobby of thinking,
which is for some men a thing much more intoxicating than mere drinking.
He had declined any number of society invitations, to the courts
of kings and princes, not because he was unfriendly, for he was not;
but because he was always glowing within with the really gigantic
plans of exposition and argument which filled his life.
On one occasion, however, he was invited to the court of King Louis IX
of France, more famous as the great St. Louis; and for some reason
or other, the Dominican authorities of his Order told him to accept;
so he immediately did so, being an obedient friar even in his sleep;
or rather in his permanent trance of reflection.
It is a real case against conventional hagiography that it sometimes
tends to make all saints seem to be the same. Whereas in fact
no men are more different than saints; not even murderers.
And there could hardly be a more complete contrast,
given the essentials of holiness, than between St. Thomas and
St. Louis. St. Louis was born a knight and a king; but he was one
of those men in whom a certain simplicity, combined with courage
and activity, makes it natural, and in a sense easy, to fulfil
directly and promptly any duty or office, however official.
He was a man in whom holiness and healthiness had no quarrel;
and their issue was in action. He did not go in for thinking much,
in the sense of theorising much. But, even in theory,
he had that sort of presence of mind, which belongs to
the rare and really practical man when he has to think.
He never said the wrong thing; and he was orthodox by instinct.
In the old pagan proverb about kings being philosophers
or philosophers kings, there was a certain miscalculation,
connected with a mystery that only Christianity could reveal.
For while it is possible for a king to wish much to be a saint,
it is not possible for a saint to wish very much to be a king.
A good man will hardly be always dreaming of being a great monarch;
but, such is the liberality of the Church, that she cannot
forbid even a great monarch to dream of being a good man.
But Louis was a straight-forward soldierly sort of person who did
not particularly mind being a king, any more than he would have
minded being a captain or a sergeant or any other rank in his army.
Now a man like St. Thomas would definitely dislike being a king,
or being entangled with the pomp and politics of kings;
not only his humility, but a sort of subconscious fastidiousness
and fine dislike of futility, often found in leisurely and
learned men with large minds, would really have prevented him
making contact with the complexity of court life. Also, he was
anxious all his life to keep out of politics; and there was no
political symbol more striking, or in a sense more challenging,
at that moment, than the power of the King in Paris.
Paris was truly at that time an aurora borealis; a Sunrise
in the North. We must realise that lands much nearer to Rome
had rotted with paganism and pessimism and Oriental influences
of which the most respectable was that of Mahound. Provence and all
the South had been full of a fever of nihilism or negative mysticism,
and from Northern France had come the spears and swords that swept
away the unchristian thing. In Northern France also sprang up
that splendour of building that shine like swords and spears:
the first spires of the Gothic. We talk now of grey Gothic buildings;
but they must have been very different when they went up
white and gleaming into the northern skies, partly picked out
with gold and bright colours; a new flight of architecture,
as startling as flying-ships. The new Paris ultimately left behind
by St. Louis must have been a thing white like lilies and splendid
as the oriflamme. It was the beginning of the great new thing:
the nation of France, which was to pierce and overpower the old
quarrel of Pope and Emperor in the lands from which Thomas came.
But Thomas came very unwillingly, and, if we may say it
of so kindly a man, rather sulkily. As he entered Paris.
they showed him from the hill that splendour of new spires beginning,
and somebody said something like, "How grand it must be to own
all this." And Thomas Aquinas only muttered, "I would rather
have that Chrysostom MS. I can't get hold of."
Somehow they steered that reluctant bulk of reflection to a seat
in the royal banquet hall; and all that we know of Thomas tells
us that he was perfectly courteous to those who spoke to him,
but spoke little, and was soon forgotten in the most brilliant
and noisy clatter in the world: the noise of French talking.
What the Frenchmen were talking about we do not know;
but they forgot all about the large fat Italian in their midst,
and it seems only too possible that he forgot all about them.
Sudden silences will occur even in French conversation; and in
one of these the interruption came. There had long been no word
or motion in that huge heap of black and white weeds, like motley
in mourning, which marked him as a mendicant friar out of the streets,
and contrasted with all the colours and patterns and quarterings
of that first and freshest dawn of chivalry and heraldry.
The triangular shields and pennons and pointed spears, the triangular
swords of the Crusade, the pointed windows and the conical hoods,
repeated everywhere that fresh French medieval spirit that did,
in every sense, come to the point. But the colours of the coats
were gay and varied, with little to rebuke their richness;
for St. Louis, who had himself a special quality of coming to
the point, had said to his courtiers, "Vanity should be avoided;
but every man should dress well, in the manner of his rank,
that his wife may the more easily love him."
And then suddenly the goblets leapt and rattled on the board and the great
table shook, for the friar had brought down his huge fist like a club
of stone, with a crash that startled everyone like an explosion;
and had cried out in a strong voice, but like a man in the grip
of a dream, "And that will settle the Manichees!"
The palace of a king, even when it is the palace of a saint,
has it conventions. A shock thrilled through the court,
and every one felt as if the fat friar from Italy had thrown
a plate at King Louis, or knocked his crown sideways.
They all looked timidly at the terrible seat, that was for a thousand
years the throne of the Capets: and many there were presumably
prepared to pitch the big black-robed beggarman out of the window.
But St. Louis, simple as he seemed, was no mere medieval fountain
of honour or even fountain of mercy but also the fountain of two
eternal rivers: the irony and the courtesy of France. And he turned
to his secretaries, asking them in a low voice to take their
tablets round to the sear of the absent-minded controversialist,
and take a note of the argument that had just occurred to him;
because it must be a very good one and he might forget it.
I have paused upon this anecdote, first, as has been said,
because it is the one which gives us the most vivid snapshot of a
great medieval character; indeed of two great medieval characters.
But it also specially fitted to be taken as a type or a turning-point,
because of the glimpse it gives of the man's main preoccupation;
and the sort of thing that might have been found in his thoughts,
if they had been thus surprised at any moment by a philosophical
eavesdropper or through a psychological keyhole. It was not
for nothing that he was still brooding, even in the white court
of St. Louis, upon the dark cloud of the Manichees.
This book is meant only to be the sketch of a man; but it must
at least lightly touch, later on, upon a method and a meaning;
or what our journalism has an annoying way of calling a message.
A few very inadequate pages must be given to the man in relation
to his theology and his philosophy; but the thing of which I mean
to speak here is something at once more general and more personal
even than his philosophy. I have therefore introduced it here,
before we come to anything like technical talk about his philosophy.
It was something that might alternatively be called his
moral attitude, or his temperamental predisposition, or the purpose
of his life so far as social and human effects were concerned:
for he knew better than most of us that there is but one
purpose in this life, and it is one that is beyond this life.
But if we wanted to put in a picturesque and simplified form
what he wanted for the world, and what was his work in history,
apart from theoretical and theological definitions, we might well
say that it really was to strike a blow and settle the Manichees.
The full meaning of this may not be apparent to those who do not study
theological history and perhaps even less apparent to those who do.
Indeed it may seem equally irrelevant to the history and the theology.
In history St. Dominic and Simon de Montfort between them had already
pretty well settled the Manichees. And in theology of course an
encyclopaedic doctor like Aquinas dealt with a thousand other heresies
besides the Manichean heresy. Nevertheless, it does represent his main
position and the turn he gave to the whole history of Christendom.
I think it well to interpose this chapter, though its scope may
seem more vague than the rest; because there is a sort of big
blunder about St. Thomas and his creed, which is an obstacle
for most modern people in even beginning to understand them.
It arises roughly thus. St. Thomas, like other monks,
and especially other saints, lived a life of renunciation
and austerity; his fasts, for instance, being in marked contrast
to the luxury in which he might have lived if he chose.
This element stands high in his religion, as a manner of asserting
the will against the power of nature, of thanking the Redeemer
by partially sharing his sufferings, of making a man ready
for anything as a missionary or martyr, and similar ideals.
These happen to be rare in the modern industrial society
of the West, outside his communion; and it is therefore
assumed that they are the whole meaning of that communion.
Because it is uncommon for an alderman to fast for forty days,
or a politician to take a Trappist vow of silence, or a man
about town to live a life of strict celibacy, the average
outsider is convinced, not only that Catholicism is nothing
except asceticism, but that asceticism is nothing except pessimism.
He is so obliging as to explain to Catholics why they hold
this heroic virtue in respect; and is ever ready to point out
that the philosophy behind it is an Oriental hatred of anything
connected with Nature, and a purely Schopenhauerian disgust
with the Will to Live. I read in a "high-class" review of
Miss Rebecca West's book on Sr. Augustine, the astounding statement
that the Catholic Church regards sex as having the nature of sin.
How marriage can be a sacrament if sex is a sin, or why it is
the Catholics who are in favour of birth and their foes who are
in favour of birth-control, I will leave the critic to worry out
for himself. My concern is not with that part of the argument;
but with another.
The ordinary modern critic, seeing this ascetic ideal
in an authoritative Church, and not seeing it in most other
inhabitants of Brixton or Brighton, is apt to say, "This is
the result of Authority; it would be better to have Religion
without Authority." But in truth, a wider experience outside
Brixton or Brighton would reveal the mistake. It is rare to find
a fasting alderman or a Trappist politician, but it is still
more rare to see nuns suspended in the air on hooks or spikes;
it is unusual for a Catholic Evidence Guild orator in Hyde Park
to begin his speech by gashing himself all over with knives;
a stranger calling at an ordinary presbytery will seldom find
the parish priest lying on the floor with a fire lighted on his
chest and scorching him while he utters spiritual ejaculations.
Yet all these things are done all over Asia, for instance,
by voluntary enthusiasts acting solely on the great impulse
of Religion; of Religion, in their case, not commonly imposed
by any immediate Authority; and certainly not imposed by this
particular Authority. In short, a real knowledge of mankind
will tell anybody that Religion is a very terrible thing;
that it is truly a raging fire, and that Authority is often
quite as much needed to restrain it as to impose it.
Asceticism, or the war with the appetites, is itself an appetite.
It can never be eliminated from among the strange ambitions
of Man. But it can be kept in some reasonable control; and it
is indulged in much saner proportion under Catholic Authority
than in Pagan or Puritan anarchy. Meanwhile, the whole
of this ideal, though an essential part of Catholic idealism
when it is understood, is in some ways entirely a side issue.
It is not the primary principle of Catholic philosophy;
it is only a particular deduction from Catholic ethics.
And when we begin to talk about primary philosophy, we realise
the full and flat contradiction between the monk fasting
and the fakir hanging himself on hooks.
Now nobody will begin to understand the Thomist philosophy,
or indeed the Catholic philosophy, who does not realise that the
primary and fundamental part of it is entirely the praise of Life,
the praise of Being, the praise of God as the Creator of the World.
Everything else follows a long way after that, being conditioned
by various complications like the Fall or the vocation of heroes.
The trouble occurs because the Catholic mind moves upon two planes;
that of the Creation and that of the Fall. The nearest parallel is,
for instance, that of England invaded; there might be strict martial
law in Kent because the enemy had landed in Kent, and relative liberty
in Hereford; but this would nor affect the affection of an English
patriot for Hereford or Kent, and strategic caution in Kent would
not affect the love of Kent. For the love of England would remain,
both of the parts to be redeemed by discipline and the parts to be enjoyed
in liberty. Any extreme of Catholic asceticism is a wise, or unwise,
precaution against the evil of the Fall; it is never a doubt about
the good of the Creation. And that is where it really does differ,
nor only from the rather excessive eccentricity of the gentleman
who hangs himself on hooks, but from the whole cosmic theory which is
the hook on which he hangs. In the case of many Oriental religions,
it really is true that the asceticism is pessimism; that the ascetic
tortures himself to death out of an abstract hatred of life;
that he does nor merely mean to control Nature as he should, but to
contradict Nature as much as he can. And though it takes a milder
form than hooks in millions of the religious populations of Asia,
it is a fact far too little realised, that the dogma of the denial
of life does really rule as a first principal on so vast a scale.
One historic form it took was that great enemy of Christianity from
its beginnings: the Manichees.
What is called the Manichean philosophy has had many forms;
indeed it has attacked what is immortal and immutable
with a very curious kind of immortal mutability.
It is like the legend of the magician who turns himself
into a snake or a cloud; and the whole has that nameless note
of irresponsibility, which belongs to much of the metaphysics
and morals of Asia, from which the Manichean mystery came.
But it is always in one way or another a notion that nature
is evil; or that evil is at least rooted in nature.
The essential point is that as evil has roots in nature,
so it has rights in nature. Wrong has as much right to exist
as right. As already stated this notion took many forms.
Sometimes it was a dualism, which made evil an equal partner
with good; so that neither could be called an usurper.
More often it was a general idea that demons had made
the material world, and if there were any good spirits.
they were concerned only with the spiritual world. Later, again,
it took the form of Calvinism, which held that God had indeed
made the world, but in a special sense, made the evil as well
as the good: had made an evil will as well as an evil world.
On this view, if a man chooses to damn his soul alive,
he is nor thwarting God's will but rather fulfilling it.
In these two forms, of the early Gnosticism and the later
Calvinism, we see the superficial variety and fundamental
unity of Manicheanism. The old Manicheans taught that Saran
originated the whole work of creation commonly attributed
to God. The new Calvinists taught that God originates the whole
work of damnation commonly attributed to Saran. One looked
back to the first day when a devil acted like a god, the other
looked forward to a last day when a god acted like a devil.
But both had the idea that the creator of the earth was primarily
the creator of the evil, whether we call him a devil or a god.
Since there are a good many Manicheans among the Moderns,
as we may remark in a moment, some may agree with this view,
some may be puzzled about it, some may only be puzzled about why
we should object to it. To understand the medieval controversy,
a word must be said of the Catholic doctrine, which is as modern
as it is medieval. That "God looked on all things and saw that
they were good" contains a subtlety which the popular pessimist
cannot follow, or is too hasty to notice. It is the thesis
that there are no bad things, but only bad uses of things.
If you will, there are no bad things but only bad thoughts;
and especially bad intentions. Only Calvinists can
really believe that hell is paved with good intentions.
That is exactly the one thing it cannot be paved with.
But it is possible to have bad intentions about good things;
and good things, like the world and the flesh have been
twisted by a bad intention called the devil. But he cannot
make things bad; they remain as on the first day of creation.
The work of heaven alone was material; the making of a material world.
The work of hell is entirely spiritual.
This error then had many forms; but especially, like nearly
every error, it had two forms, a fiercer one which was outside
the Church and attacking the Church, and a subtler one, which was
inside the Church and corrupting the Church. There has never
been a time when the Church was not torn between that invasion
and that treason. It was so, for instance, in the Victorian time,
Darwinian "competition", in commerce or race conflict, was every
bit as brazen an atheist assault, in the nineteenth century,
as the Bolshevist No-God movement in the twentieth century.
To brag of brute prosperity, to admire the most muddly millionaires
who had cornered wheat by a trick, to talk about the "unfit"
(in imitation of the scientific thinker who would finish
them off because he cannot even finish his own sentence--
unfit for what?)--all that is as simply and openly Anti-Christian
as the Black Mass. Yet some weak and worldly Catholics did
use this cant in defence of Capitalism, in their first rather
feeble resistance to Socialism. At least they did until
the great Encyclical of the Pope on the Rights of Labour put
a stop to all their nonsense. The evil is always both within
and without the Church; but in a wilder form outside and a milder
form inside. So it was, again, in the seventeenth century,
when there was Calvinism outside and Jansenism inside.
And so it was in the thirteenth century, when the obvious
danger outside was in the revolution of the Albigensians;
but the potential danger inside was in the very traditionalism
of the Augustinians. For the Augustinians derived only
from Augustine, and Augustine derived partly from Plato,
and Plato was right, but nor quite right. It is a mathematical
fact that if a line be not perfectly directed towards a point,
it will actually go further away from it as it comes nearer to it.
After a thousand years of extension, the miscalculation
of Platonism had come very near to Manicheanism.
Popular errors are nearly always right. They nearly always
refer to some ultimate reality, about which those who correct
them are themselves incorrect. It is a very queer thing that
"Platonic Love" has come to mean for the un-lettered something
rather purer and cleaner than it means for the learned.
Yet even those who realise the great Greek evil may well realise
that perversity often comes out of the wrong sort of purity.
Now it was the inmost lie of the Manichees that they
identified purity with sterility. It is singularly contrasted
with the language of St. Thomas, which always connects purity
with fruitfulness; whether it be natural or supernatural.
And, queerly enough, as I have said, there does remain a sort
of reality in the vulgar colloquialism that the affair
between Sam and Susan is "quite Platonic." It is true that,
quite apart from the local perversion, there was in Plato a sort
of idea that people would be better without their bodies:
that their heads might fly off and meet in the sky in
merely intellectual marriage, like cherubs in a picture.
The ultimate phase of this "Platonic" philosophy was what
inflamed poor D. H. Lawrence into talking nonsense, and he was
probably unaware that the Catholic doctrine of marriage
would say much of what he said, without talking nonsense.
Anyhow, it is historically important to see that Platonic
love did somewhat distort both human and divine love,
in the theory of the early theologians. Many medieval men,
who would indignantly deny the Albigensian doctrine of sterility,
were yet in an emotional mood to abandon the body in despair;
and some of them to abandon everything in despair.
In truth, this vividly illuminates the provincial stupidity
of those who object to what they call "creeds and dogmas."
It was precisely the creed and dogma that saved the sanity of the world.
These people generally propose an alternative religion of intuition
and feeling. If, in the really Dark Ages, there had been a religion
of feeling, it would have been a religion of black and suicidal feeling.
It was the rigid creed that resisted the rush of suicidal feeling.
The critics of asceticism are probably right in supposing that
many a Western hermit did feel rather like an Eastern fakir.
But he could not really think like an Eastern fakir; because he was
an orthodox Catholic. And what kept his thought in touch with healthier
and more humanistic thought was simply and solely the Dogma. He could
not deny that a good God had created the normal and natural world;
he could not say that the devil had made the world; because he was
not a Manichee. A thousand enthusiasts for celibacy, in the day
of the great rush to the desert or the cloister, might have called
marriage a sin, if they had only considered their individual ideals,
in the modern manner, and their own immediate feelings about marriage.
Fortunately, they had to accept the Authority of the Church,
which had definitely said that marriage was not a sin.
A modern emotional religion might at any moment have turned Catholicism
into Manichaeism. But when Religion would have maddened men,
Theology kept them sane.
In this sense St. Thomas stands up simply as the great
orthodox theologian, who reminded men of the creed of Creation,
when many of them were still in the mood of mere destruction.
It is futile for the critics of medievalism to quote
a hundred medieval phrases that may be supposed to sound like
mere pessimism, if they will not understand the central fact;
that medieval men did not care about being medieval and did
not accept the authority of a mood, because it was melancholy,
but did care very much about orthodoxy, which is not a mood.
It was because St. Thomas could prove that his glorification
of the Creator and His creative joy was more orthodox than
any atmospheric pessimism, that he dominated the Church
and the world, which accepted that truth as a test.
But when this immense and impersonal importance is allowed for,
we may agree that there was a personal element as well.
Like most of the great religious teachers, he was fitted
individually for the task that God had given him to do.
We can if we like call that talent instinctive; we can even
descend to calling it temperamental.
Anybody trying to popularise a medieval philosopher must
use language that is very modern and very unphilosophical.
Nor is this a sneer at modernity; it arises from the moderns having
dealt so much in moods and emotions, especially in the arts,
that they have developed a large but loose vocabulary, which deals
more with atmosphere than with actual attitude or position.
As noted elsewhere, even the modern philosophers are more like
the modern poets; in giving an individual tinge even to truth,
and often looking at all life through different coloured spectacles.
To say that Schopenhauer had the blues, or that William James
had a rather rosier outlook, would often convey more than calling
the one a Pessimist or the other a Pragmatist. This modern
moodiness has its value, though the moderns overrate it; just as
medieval logic had its value, though it was overrated in the later
Middle Ages. But the point is that to explain the medievals
to the moderns, we must often use this modern language of mood.
Otherwise the character will be missed, through certain
prejudices and ignorances about all such medieval characters.
Now there is something that lies all over the work of
St. Thomas Aquinas like a great light: which is something quite
primary and perhaps unconscious with him, which he would perhaps
have passed over as an irrelevant personal quality; and which can
now only be expressed by a rather cheap journalistic term,
which he would probably have thought quite senseless.
Nevertheless, the only working word for that atmosphere
is Optimism. I know that the word is now even more degraded
in the twentieth century than it was in the nineteenth century.
Men talked lately of being Optimists about the issue of War;
they talk now of being Optimists about the revival of Trade;
they may talk tomorrow of being Optimists about the
International Ping-pong Tournament. But men in the Victorian
time did mean a little more than that, when they used the word
Optimist of Browning or Stevenson or Walt Whitman. And in a rather
larger and more luminous sense than in the case of these men,
the term was basically true of Thomas Aquinas. He did,
with a most solid and colossal conviction, believe in Life:
and in something like what Stevenson called the great theorem
of the livableness of life. It breathes somehow in his
very first phrases about the reality of Being. If the morbid
Renaissance intellectual is supposed to say, "To be or not to be--
that is the question," then the massive medieval doctor does most
certainly reply in a voice of thunder, "To be--that is the answer."
The point is important; many not unnaturally talk of the Renaissance
as the time when certain men began to believe in Life. The truth
is that it was the time when a few men, for the first time,
began to disbelieve in Life. The medievals had put many restrictions,
and some excessive restrictions, upon the universal
human hunger and even fury for Life. Those restrictions
had often been expressed in fanatical and rabid terms;
the terms of those resisting a great natural force; the force
of men who desired to live. Never until modern thought began,
did they really have to fight with men who desired to die.
That horror had threatened them in Asiatic Albigensianism,
but it never became normal to them--until now.
But this fact becomes very vivid indeed, when we compare
the greatest of Christian philosophers with the only men who
were anything like his equals, or capable of being his rivals.
They were people with whom he did not directly dispute;
most of them he had never seen; some of them he had never heard of.
Plato and Augustine were the only two with whom he could confer
as he did with Bonaventure or even Averrhoes. But we must look
elsewhere for his real rivals, and the only real rivals of the
Catholic theory. They are the heads of great heathen systems;
some of them very ancient, some very modern, like Buddha
on the one hand or Nietzsche on the other. It is when we see
his gigantic figure against this vast and cosmic background,
that we realise, first, that he was the only optimist theologian,
and second, that Catholicism is the only optimist theology.
Something milder and more amiable may be made out of the deliquescence
of theology, and the mixture of the creed with everything
that contradicts it; but among consistent cosmic creeds,
this is the only one that is entirely on the side of Life.
Comparative religion has indeed allowed us to compare religions--
and to contrast them. Fifty years ago, it set out to prove that all
religions were much the same; generally proving, alternately, that they
were all equally worthy and that they were all equally worthless.
Since then this scientific process has suddenly begun to be scientific,
and discovered the depths of the chasms as well as the heights
of the hills. It is indeed an excellent improvement that sincerely
religious people should respect each other. But respect has
discovered difference, where contempt knew only indifference. The more
we really appreciate the noble revulsion and renunciation of Buddha,
the more we see that intellectually it was the converse and almost
the contrary of the salvation of the world by Christ. The Christian
would escape from the world into the universe: the Buddhist
wishes to escape from the universe even more than from the world.
One would uncreate himself; the other would return to his Creation:
to his Creator. Indeed it was so genuinely the converse of the idea
of the Cross as the Tree of Life, that there is some excuse for setting
up the two things side by side, as if they were of equal significance.
They are in one sense parallel and equal; as a mound and a hollow,
as a valley and a hill. There is a sense in which that sublime
despair is the only alternative to that divine audacity.
It is even true that the truly spiritual and intellectual man sees
it as a sort of dilemma; a very hard and terrible choice. There is
little else on earth that can compare with these for completeness.
And he who will not climb the mountain of Christ does indeed fall
into the abyss of Buddha.
The same is true, in a less lucid and dignified fashion, of most
other alternatives of heathen humanity; nearly all are sucked back
into that whirlpool of recurrence which all the ancients knew.
Nearly all return to the one idea of returning. That is
what Buddha described so darkly as the Sorrowful Wheel. It is
true that the sort of recurrence which Buddha described
as the Sorrowful Wheel, poor Nietzsche actually managed
to describe as the Joyful Wisdom. I can only say that if bare
repetition was his idea of Joyful Wisdom, I should be curious
to know what was his idea of Sorrowful Wisdom. But as a fact,
in the case of Nietzsche, this did not belong to the moment
of his breaking out, but to the moment of his breaking down.
It came at the end of his life, when he was near to mental collapse;
and it is really quite contrary to his earlier and finer
inspirations of wild freedom or fresh and creative innovation.
Once at least he had tried to break out; but he also was only broken--
on the wheel.
Alone upon the earth, and lifted and liberated from all the wheels
and whirlpools of the earth, stands up the faith of St. Thomas'
weighted and balanced indeed with more than Oriental metaphysics
and more than Pagan pomp and pageantry; but vitally and vividly
alone in declaring that life is a living story, with a great
beginning and a great close; rooted in the primeval joy of God
and finding its fruition in the final happiness of humanity;
opening with the colossal chorus in which the sons of God shouted
for joy, and ending in that mystical comradeship, shown in a shadowy
fashion in those ancient words that move like an archaic dance;
"For His delight is with the sons of men."
It is the fate of this sketch to be sketchy about philosophy,
scanty or rather empty about theology, and to achieve little
more than a decent silence on the subject of sanctity.
And yet it must none the less be the recurrent burden of this
little book, to which it must return with some monotony,
that in this story the philosophy did depend on the theology,
and the theology did depend on the sanctity. In other words, it must
repeat the first fact, which was emphasised in the first chapter:
that this great intellectual creation was a Christian and
Catholic creation and cannot be understood as anything else.
It was Aquinas who baptised Aristotle, when Aristotle
could not have baptised Aquinas; it was a purely Christian
miracle which raised the great Pagan from the dead.
And this is proved in three ways (as St. Thomas himself might
say), which it will be well to summarise as a sort of summary
of this book.
First, in the life of St. Thomas, it is proved in the fact
that only his huge and solid orthodoxy could have supported
so many things which then seemed to be unorthodox. Charity covers
a multitude of sins; and in that sense orthodoxy covers a multitude
of heresies; or things which are hastily mistaken for heresies.
It was precisely because his personal Catholicism was so convincing,
that his impersonal Aristotelianism was given the benefit of the doubt.
He did not smell of the faggot because he did smell of the firebrand;
of the firebrand he had so instantly and instinctively snatched up,
under a real assault on essential Catholic ethics. A typically
cynical modern phrase refers to the man who is so good that he is good
for nothing. St. Thomas was so good that he was good for everything;
that his warrant held good for what others considered the most
wild and daring speculations, ending in the worship of nothing.
Whether or no he baptised Aristotle, he was truly the godfather
of Aristotle, he was his sponsor; he swore that the old Greek would
do no harm; and the whole world trusted his word.
Second, in the philosophy of St. Thomas, it is proved
by the fact that everything depended on the new Christian
motive for the study of facts, as distinct from truths.
The Thomist philosophy began with the lowest roots of thought,
the senses and the truisms of the reason; and a Pagan sage
might have scorned such things, as he scorned the servile arts.
But the materialism, which is merely cynicism in a Pagan,
can be Christian humility in a Christian. St. Thomas
was willing to begin by recording the facts and sensations
of the material world, just as he would have been willing
to begin by washing up the plates and dishes in the monastery.
The point of his Aristotelianism was that even if common sense
about concrete things really was a sort of servile labour,
he must not be ashamed to be servus servorum Dei. Among heathens
the mere sceptic might become the mere cynic; Diogenes in his
tub had always a touch of the tub-thumper; but even the dirt
of the cynics was dignified into dust and ashes among the saints.
If we miss that, we miss the whole meaning of the greatest
revolution in history. There was a new motive for beginning
with the most material, and even with the meanest things.
Third, in the theology of St. Thomas, it is proved by the
tremendous truth that supports all that theology; or any other
Christian theology. There really was a new reason for regarding
the senses, and the sensations of the body, and the experiences
of the common man, with a reverence at which great Aristotle
would have stared, and no man in the ancient world could have
begun to understand. The Body was no longer what it was when
Plato and Porphyry and the old mystics had left it for dead.
It had hung upon a gibbet. It had risen from a tomb.
It was no longer possible for the soul to despise the senses,
which had been the organs of something that was more than man.
Plato might despise the flesh; but God had not despised it.
The senses had truly become sanctified; as they are blessed
one by one at a Catholic baptism. "Seeing is believing"
was no longer the platitude of a mere idiot, or common individual,
as in Plato's world; it was mixed up with real conditions
of real belief. Those revolving mirrors that send messages
to the brain of man, that light that breaks upon the brain,
these had truly revealed to God himself the path to Bethany or
the light on the high rock of Jerusalem. These ears that resound
with common noises had reported also to the secret knowledge
of God the noise of the crowd that strewed palms and the crowd
that cried for Crucifixion. After the Incarnation had become
the idea that is central in our civilisation, it was inevitable
that there should be a return to materialism, in the sense
of the serious value of matter and the making of the body.
When once Christ had risen, it was inevitable that Aristotle
should rise again.
Those are three real reasons, and very sufficient reasons, for the general
support given by the saint to a solid and objective philosophy.
And yet there was something else, very vast and vague, to which I have
tried to give a faint expression by the interposition of this chapter.
It is difficult to express it fully, without the awful peril
of being popular, or what the Modernists quite wrongly imagine
to be popular; in short, passing from religion to religiosity.
But there is a general tone and temper of Aquinas, which it is
as difficult to avoid as daylight in a great house of windows.
It is that positive position of his mind, which is filled and soaked
as with sunshine with the warmth of the wonder of created things.
There is a certain private audacity, in his communion, by which men
add to their private names the tremendous titles of the Trinity and
the Redemption; so that some nun may be called "of the Holy Ghost";
or a man bear such a burden as the title of St. John of the Cross.
In this sense, the man we study may specially be called St. Thomas
of the Creator. The Arabs have a phrase about the hundred names of God;
but they also inherit the tradition of a tremendous name unspeakable
because it expresses Being itself, dumb and yet dreadful as an instant
inaudible shout; the proclamation of the Absolute. And perhaps no
other man ever came to near to calling the Creator by His own name,
which can only be written I Am.
CHESTERTON-St Thomas Aquinas - THE ARISTOTELIAN REVOLUTION