CHESTERTON-St Thomas Aquinas - V THE REAL LIFE OF ST. THOMAS
The fact that Thomism is the philosophy of common sense is itself a matter of common sense. Yet it wants a word of explanation, because we have so long taken such matters in a very uncommon sense.
For good or evil, Europe since the Reformation, and most especially England since the Reformation, has been in a peculiar sense the home of paradox. I mean in the very peculiar sense that paradox was at home, and that men were at home with it. The most familiar example is the English boasting that they are practical because they are not logical. To an ancient Greek or a Chinaman this would seem exactly like saving that London clerks excel in adding up their ledgers, because they are not accurate in their arithmetic. But the point is not that it is a paradox; it is that parodoxy has become orthodoxy; that men repose in a paradox as placidly as in a platitude. It is not that the practical man stands on his head, which may sometimes be a stimulating if startling gymnastic; it is that he rests on his head; and even sleeps on his head. This is an important point, because the use of paradox is to awaken the mind.
Take a good paradox, like that of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Give us the luxuries of life and we will dispense with the necessities." It is amusing and therefore arresting; it has a fine air of defiance; it contains a real if romantic truth. It is all part of the fun that it is stated almost in the form of a contradiction in terms.
But most people would agree that there would be considerable danger in basing the whole social system on the notion that necessities are not necessary; as some have based the whole British Constitution on the notion that nonsense will always work out as common sense.
Yet even here, it might be said that the invidious example has spread, and that the modern industrial system does really say, "Give us luxuries like coal-tar soap, and we will dispense with necessities like corn."
So much is familiar; but what is not even now realised is that not only the practical politics, but the abstract philosophies of the modern world have had this queer twist. Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody's system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody's sense of reality: to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense.
Each started with a paradox: a peculiar point of view demanding the sacrifice of what they would call a sane point of view.
That is the one thing common to Hobbes and Hegel, to Kant and Bergson.
to Berkeley and William James. A man had to believe something that no normal man would believe, if it were suddenly propounded to his simplicity; as that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there.
The modern philosopher claims, like a sort of confidence man, that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy; he will straighten out the world, if once he is allowed to give this one twist to the mind.
It will be understood that in these matters I speak as a fool; or, as our democratic cousins would say, a moron; anyhow as a man in the street; and the only object of this chapter is to show that the Thomist philosophy is nearer than most philosophies to the mind of the man in the street.
I am not, like Father D'Arcy, whose admirable book on St. Thomas has illuminated many problems for me, a trained philosopher, acquainted with the technique of the trade. But I hope Father D'Arcy will forgive me if I take one example from his book, which exactly illustrates what I mean. He, being a trained philosopher, is naturally trained to put up with philosophers.
Also, being a trained priest, he is naturally accustomed, not only to suffer fools gladly, but (what is sometimes even harder) to suffer clever people gladly. Above all, his wide reading in metaphysics has made him patient with clever people when they indulge in folly. The consequence is that he can write calmly and even blandly sentences like these. "A certain likeness can be detected between the aim and method of St. Thomas and those of Hegel. There are, however, also remarkable differences.
For St. Thomas it is impossible that contradictories should exist together, and again reality and intelligibility correspond, but a thing must first be, to be intelligible."
Let the man in the street be forgiven, if he adds that the "remarkable difference" seems to him to be that St. Thomas was sane and Hegel was mad. The moron refuses to admit that Hegel can both exist and not exist; or that it can be possible to understand Hegel, if there is no Hegel to understand. Yet Father D'Arcy mentions this Hegelian paradox as if it were all in the day's work; and of course it is, if the work is reading all the modern philosophers as searchingly and sympathetically as he has done.
And this is what I mean saying that all modern philosophy starts with a stumbling-block. It is surely not too much to say that there seems to be a twist, in saying that contraries are not incompatible; or that a thing can "be" intelligible and not as yet "be" at all.
Against all this the philosophy of St. Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs.
The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkeleian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble.
But no pupil of St. Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs.
The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God.
Thus, even those who appreciate the metaphysical depth of Thomism in other matters have expressed surprise that he does not deal at all with what many now think the main metaphysical question; whether we can prove that the primary act of recognition of any reality is real.
The answer is that St. Thomas recognised instantly, what so many modern sceptics have begun to suspect rather laboriously; that a man must either answer that question in the affirmative, or else never answer any question, never ask any question, never even exist intellectually, to answer or to ask. I suppose it is true in a sense that a man can be a fundamental sceptic, but he cannot be anything else: certainly not even a defender of fundamental scepticism.
If a man feels that all the movements of his own mind are meaningless, then his mind is meaningless, and he is meaningless; and it does not mean anything to attempt to discover his meaning.
Most fundamental sceptics appear to survive, because they are not consistently sceptical and not at all fundamental.
They will first deny everything and then admit something, if for the sake of argument--or often rather of attack without argument.
I saw an almost startling example of this essential frivolity in a professor of final scepticism, in a paper the other day.
A man wrote to say that he accepted nothing but Solipsism, and added that he had often wondered it was not a more common philosophy.
Now Solipsism simply means that a man believes in his own existence, but not in anybody or anything else. And it never struck this simple sophist, that if his philosophy was true, there obviously were no other philosophers to profess it.
To this question "Is there anything?" St. Thomas begins by answering "Yes"; if he began by answering "No", it would not be the beginning, but the end. That is what some of us call common sense.
Either there is no philosophy, no philosophers, no thinkers, no thought, no anything; or else there is a real bridge between the mind and reality.
But he is actually less exacting than many thinkers, much less so than most rationalist and materialist thinkers, as to what that first step involves; he is content, as we shall see, to say that it involves the recognition of Ens or Being as something definitely beyond ourselves.
Ens is Ens: Eggs are eggs, and it is not tenable that all eggs were found in a mare's nest.
Needless to say, I am not so silly as to suggest that all the writings of St. Thomas are simple and straightforward; in the sense of being easy to understand. There are passages I do not in the least understand myself; there are passages that puzzle much more learned and logical philosophers than I am; there are passages about which the greatest Thomists still differ and dispute.
But that is a question of a thing being hard to read or understand: not hard to accept when understood. That is a mere matter of "The Cat sat on the Mat" being written in Chinese characters: or "Mary had a Little Lamb" in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The only point I am stressing here is that Aquinas is almost always on the side of simplicity, and supports the ordinary man's acceptance of ordinary truisms. For instance, one of the most obscure passages, in my very inadequate judgment, is that in which he explains how the mind is certain of an external object and not merely of an impression of that object; and yet apparently reaches it through a concept, though not merely through an impression. But the only point here is that he does explain that the mind is certain of an external object.
It is enough for this purpose that his conclusion is what is called the conclusion of common sense; that it is his purpose to justify common sense; even though he justifies it in a
passage which happens to be one of rather uncommon subtlety.
The problem of later philosophers is that their conclusion is
as dark as their demonstration; or that they bring out a result
of which the result is chaos.
Unfortunately, between the man in the street and the Angel of the Schools,
there stands at this moment a very high brick wall, with spikes on
the top, separating two men who in many ways stand for the same thing.
The wall is almost a historical accident; at least it was built
a very long time ago, for reasons that need not affect the needs
of normal men today; least of all the greatest need of normal men;
which is for a normal philosophy. The first difficulty is merely
a difference of form; not in the medieval but in the modern sense.
There is first a simple obstacle of language; there is then a rather more
subtle obstacle of logical method. But the language itself counts for a
great deal; even when it is translated, it is still a foreign language;
and it is, like other foreign languages, very often translated wrong.
As with every other literature from another age or country, it carried
with it an atmosphere which is beyond the mere translation of words,
as they are translated in a traveller's phrase-book. For instance,
the whole system of St. Thomas hangs on one huge and yet simple idea;
which does actually cover everything there is, and even everything that
could possibly be. He represents this cosmic conception by the word Ens;
and anybody who can read any Latin at all, however rudely, feels it
to be the apt and fitting word; exactly as he feels it in a French word
in a piece of good French prose. It ought to be a matter of logic;
but it is also a matter of language.
Unfortunately there is no satisfying translation of the word Ens. The
difficulty is rather verbal than logical, but it is practical.
I mean that when the translator says in English 'being', we
are aware of a rather different atmosphere. Atmosphere ought
not to affect these absolutes of the intellect; but it does.
The new psychologists, who are almost eagerly at war with reason,
never tire of telling us that the very terms we use are coloured
by our subconsciousness, with something we meant to exclude
from our consciousness. And one need not be so idealistically
irrational as a modern psychologist, in order to admit
that the very shape and sound of words do make a difference,
even in the baldest prose, as they do in the most beautiful poetry.
We cannot quite prevent the imagination from remembering irrelevant
associations even in the abstract sciences like mathematics.
Jones Minimus, hustled from history to geometry, may for an instant
connect the Angles of the isosceles triangle with the Angles
of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; and even the mature mathematician,
if he is as mad as the psychoanalyst hopes, may have in the roots
of his subconscious mind something material in his idea of a root.
Now it unfortunately happens that the word 'being', as it comes
to a modern Englishman, through modern associations, has a sort
of hazy atmosphere that is not in the short and sharp Latin word.
Perhaps it reminds him of fantastic professors in fiction,
who wave their hands and say, "Thus do we mount to the ineffable
heights of pure and radiant Being:" or, worse still, of actual
professors in real life, who say, "All Being is Becoming; and is
but the evolution of Not-Being by the law of its Being." Perhaps it
only reminds him of romantic rhapsodies in old love stories;
"Beautiful and adorable being, light and breath of my
very being". Anyhow it has a wild and woolly sort of sound;
as if only very vague people used it; or as if it might mean
all sorts of different things.
Now the Latin word Ens has a sound like the English word End. It is
final and even abrupt; it is nothing except itself. There was
once a silly gibe against Scholastics like Aquinas, that they
discussed whether angels could stand on the point of a needle.
It is at least certain that this first word of Aquinas is as sharp
as the point of a pin. For that also is, in an almost ideal sense,
an End. But when we say that St. Thomas Aquinas is concerned
fundamentally with the idea of Being, we must not admit any
of the cloudier generalisations that we may have grown used to,
or even grown tired of, in the sort of idealistic writing
that is rather rhetoric than philosophy. Rhetoric is a very
fine thing in its place, as a medieval scholar would have
willingly agreed, as he taught it along with logic in the schools;
but St. Thomas Aquinas himself is not at all rhetorical.
Perhaps he is hardly even sufficiently rhetorical.
There are any number of purple patches in Augustine; but there
are no purple patches in Aquinas. He did on certain definite
occasions drop into poetry; but he very seldom dropped into oratory.
And so little was he in touch with some modern tendencies,
that whenever he did write poetry, he actually put it into poems.
There is another side to this, to be noted later.
He very specially possessed the philosophy that inspires poetry;
as he did so largely inspire Dante's poetry. And poetry without
philosophy has only inspiration, or, in vulgar language, only wind.
He had, so to speak, the imagination without the imagery.
And even this is perhaps too sweeping. There is an image
of his, that is true poetry as well as true philosophy;
about the tree of life bowing down with a huge humility,
because of the very load of its living fruitfulness; a thing Dante
might have described so as to overwhelm us with the tremendous
twilight and almost drug us with the divine fruit. But normally,
we may say that his words are brief even when his books are long.
I have taken the example of the word Ens, precisely because it is one
of the cases in which Latin is plainer than plain English. And his
style, unlike that of St. Augustine and many Catholic Doctors,
is always a penny plain rather than twopence coloured.
It is often difficult to understand, simply because the subjects
are so difficult that hardly any mind, except one like his own,
can fully understand them. But he never darkens it by
using words without knowledge, or even more legitimately,
by using words belonging only to imagination or intuition.
So far as his method is concerned, he is perhaps the one real
Rationalist among all the children of men.
This brings us to the other difficulty; that of logical method.
I have never understood why there is supposed to be something
crabbed or antique about a syllogism; still less can I
understand what any-body means by talking as if induction
had somehow taken the place of deduction. The whole point
of deduction is that true premises produce a true conclusion.
What is called induction seems simply to mean collecting a larger
number of true premises. or perhaps, in some physical matters,
taking rather more trouble to see that they are true.
It may be a fact that a modern man can get more out of a great
many premises, concerning microbes or asteroids than a medieval man
could get out of a very few premises about salamanders and unicorns.
But the process of deduction from the data is the same for
the modern mind as for the medieval mind; and what is pompously
called induction is simply collecting more of the data.
And Aristotle or Aquinas, or anybody in his five wits, would of
course agree that the conclusion could only be true if the premises
were true; and that the more true premises there were the better.
It was the misfortune of medieval culture that there were not
enough true premises, owing to the rather ruder conditions
of travel or experiment. But however perfect were the conditions
of travel or experiment, they could only produce premises;
it would still be necessary to deduce conclusions.
But many modern people talk as if what they call induction
were some magic way of reaching a conclusion, without using
any of those horrid old syllogisms. But induction does not lead
us to a conclusion. Induction only leads us to a deduction.
Unless the last three syllogistic steps are all right, the conclusion
is all wrong. Thus, the great nineteenth century men of science,
whom I was brought up to revere ("accepting the conclusions
of science", it was always called), went out and closely
inspected the air and the earth, the chemicals and the gases,
doubtless more closely than Aristotle or Aquinas, and then
came back and embodied their final conclusion in a syllogism.
"All matter is made of microscopic little knobs which are indivisible.
My body is made of matter. Therefore my body is made of microscopic
little knobs which are indivisible." They were not wrong in
the form of their reasoning; because it is the only way to reason.
In this world there is nothing except a syllogism--and a fallacy.
But of course these modern men knew, as the medieval men knew,
that their conclusions would not be true unless their
premises were true. And that is where the trouble began.
For the men of science, or their sons and nephews,
went out and took another look at the knobby nature of matter;
and were surprised to find that it was not knobby at all.
So they came back and completed the process with their syllogism;
"All matter is made of whirling protons and electrons.
My body is made of matter. Therefore my body is made of whirling
protons and electrons." And that again is a good syllogism;
though they may have to look at matter once or twice more,
before we know whether it is a true premise and a true conclusion.
But in the final process of truth there is nothing else except
a good syllogism. The only other thing is a bad syllogism;
as in the familiar fashionable shape; "All matter is made of protons
and electrons. I should very much like to think that mind is much
the same as matter. So I will announce, through the microphone
or the megaphone, that my mind is made of protons and electrons."
But that is not induction; it is only a very bad blunder
in deduction. That is not another or new way of thinking;
it is only ceasing to think.
What is really meant, and what is much more reasonable,
is that the old syllogists sometimes set out the syllogism
at length; and certainly that is not always necessary.
A man can run down the three steps much more quickly than that;
but a man cannot run down the three steps if they are not there.
If he does, he will break his neck, as if he walked out of a
fourth-story window. The truth about this false antithesis
of induction and deduction is simply this; that as premises
or data accumulated, the emphasis and detail was shifted
to them, from the final deduction to which they lead.
But they did lead to a final deduction; or else they led to nothing.
The logician had so much to say about electrons or microbes
that he dwelt most on these data and shortened or assumed his
ultimate syllogism. But if he reasoned rightly, however rapidly,
he reasoned syllogistically.
As a matter of fact, Aquinas does not usually argue in syllogisms;
though he always argues syllogistically. I mean he does not set out
all the steps of the logic in each case; the legend that he does so is
part of that loose and largely unverified legend of the Renaissance;
that the Schoolmen were all crabbed and mechanical medieval bores.
But he does argue with a certain austerity, and disdain of ornament,
which may make him seem monotonous to anyone specially seeking
the modern forms of wit or fancy. But all this has nothing to do
with the question asked at the beginning of this chapter and needing
to be answered at the end of it; the question of what he is arguing for.
In that respect it can be repeated, most emphatically, that he is
arguing for common sense. He is arguing for a common sense
which would even now commend itself to most of the common people.
He is arguing for the popular proverbs that seeing is believing;
that the proof of the pudding is in the eating; that a man cannot
jump down his own throat or deny the fact of his own existence.
He often maintains the view by the use of abstractions;
but the abstractions are no more abstract than Energy or Evolution
or Space-Time; and they do not land us, as the others often do,
in hopeless contradictions about common life. The Pragmatist
sets out to be practical, but his practicality turns out to be
entirely theoretical. The Thomist begins by being theoretical,
but his theory turns out to be entirely practical. That is why
a great part of the world is returning to it today.
Finally, there is some real difficulty in the fact of a
foreign language; apart from the ordinary fact of the Latin language.
Modern philosophical terminology is not always exactly identical
with plain English; and medieval philosophical terminology is not
at all identical even with modern philosophical terminology.
It is not really very difficult to learn the meaning of the main terms;
but their medieval meaning is sometimes the exact opposite of their
modern meaning. The obvious example is in the pivotal word "form".
We say nowadays, "I wrote a formal apology to the Dean", or "The
proceedings when we wound up the Tip-Cat Club were purely formal."
But we mean that they were purely fictitious; and St. Thomas, had he been
a member of the Tip-Cat Club, would have meant just the opposite.
He would have meant that the proceedings dealt with the very heart
and soul and secret of the whole being of the Tip-Cat Club;
and that the apology to the Dean was so essentially apologetic
that it tore the very heart out in tears of true contrition.
For "formal" in Thomist language means actual, or possessing
the real decisive quality that makes a thing itself.
Roughly when he describes a thing as made out of Form and Matter,
he very rightly recognises that Matter is the more mysterious
and indefinite and featureless element; and that what stamps
anything with its own identity is its Form. Matter, so to speak,
is not so much the solid as the liquid or gaseous thing in the cosmos:
and in this most modern scientists are beginning to agree with him.
But the form is the fact; it is that which makes a brick a brick,
and a bust a bust, and not the shapeless and trampled clay
of which either may be made. The stone that broke a statuette,
in some Gothic niche, might have been itself a statuette;
and under chemical analysis, the statuette is only a stone. But such
a chemical analysis is entirely false as a philosophical analysis.
The reality, the thing that makes the two things real, is in the idea
of the image and in the idea of the image-breaker. This is only
a passing example of the mere idiom of the Thomist terminology;
but it is not a bad prefatory specimen of the truth of Thomist thought.
Every artist knows that the form is not superficial but fundamental;
that the form is the foundation. Every sculptor knows that the form
of the statue is not the outside of the statue, but rather the inside
of the statue; even in the sense of the inside of the sculptor.
Every poet knows that the sonnet-form is not only the form of
the poem; but the poem. No modern critic who does not understand
what the medieval Schoolman meant by form can meet the Schoolman
as an intellectual equal.
It is a pity that the word Anthropology has been degraded to the study
of Anthropoids. It is now incurably associated with squabbles
between prehistoric professors (in more senses than one) about whether
a chip of stone is the tooth of a man or an ape; sometimes settled
as in that famous case, when it was found to be the tooth of a pig.
It is very right that there should be a purely physical science
of such things; but the name commonly used might well, by analogy,
have been dedicated to things not only wider and deeper, but rather
more relevant. Just as, in America, the new Humanists have pointed
out to the old Humanitarians that their humanitarianism has been
largely concentrated on things that are not specially human, such as
physical conditions, appetites, economic needs, environment and so on--
so in practice those who are called Anthropologists have to narrow
their minds to the materialistic things that are not notably anthropic.
They have to hunt through history and pre-history something which
emphatically is not Homo Sapiens, but is always in fact regarded
as Simius Insipiens. Homo Sapiens can only be considered in relation
to Sapientia and only a book like that of St. Thomas is really devoted
to the intrinsic idea of Sapientia. In short, there ought to be
a real study called Anthropology corresponding to Theology. In this
sense St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps more than he is anything else,
is a great anthropologist.
I apologise for the opening words of this chapter to all
those excellent and eminent men of science, who are engaged
in the real study of humanity in its relation to biology.
But I rather fancy that they will be the last to deny that there has
been a somewhat disproportionate disposition, in popular science,
to turn the study of human beings into the study of savages.
And savagery is not history; it is either the beginning of history
or the end of it. I suspect that the greatest scientists
would agree that only too many professors have thus been lost
in the bush or the jungle; professors who wanted to study
anthropology and never got any further than anthropophagy.
But I have a particular reason for prefacing this suggestion
of a higher anthropology by an apology to any genuine biologists
who might seem to be included, but are certainly not included,
in a protest against cheap popular science. For the first thing
to be said about St. Thomas as an anthropologist, is that he is really
remarkably like the best sort of modern biological anthropologist;
of the sort who would call themselves Agnostics. This fact is
so sharp and decisive a turning point in history, that the history
really needs to be recalled and recorded.
St. Thomas Aquinas closely resembles the great Professor Huxley,
the Agnostic who invented the word Agnosticism. He is like him
in his way of starting the argument, and he is unlike everybody else,
before and after, until the Huxleyan age. He adopts almost literally
the Huxleyan definition of the Agnostic method; "To follow reason
as far as it will go"; the only question is--where does it go?
He lays down the almost startlingly modern or materialist statement;
"Every thing that is in the intellect has been in the senses". This
is where he began, as much as any modern man of science, nay, as much
as any modern materialist who can now hardly be called a man of science;
at the very opposite end of enquiry from that of the mere mystic.
The Platonists, or at least the Neo-Platonists, all tended to the view
that the mind was lit entirely from within; St. Thomas insisted that it
was lit by five windows, that we call the windows of the senses.
But he wanted the light from without to shine on what was within.
He wanted to study the nature of Man, and not merely of such
moss and mushrooms as he might see through the window,
and which he valued as the first enlightening experience of man.
And starting from this point, he proceeds to climb the House of Man,
step by step and story by story, until he has come out on the highest
tower arid beheld the largest vision.
In other words, he is an anthropologist, with a complete theory
of Man, right or wrong. Now the modern Anthropologists, who called
themselves Agnostics, completely failed to be Anthropologists at all.
Under their limitations, they could not get a complete theory of Man,
let alone a complete theory of nature. They began by ruling out
something which they called the Unknowable. The incomprehensibility
was almost comprehensible, if we could really understand
the Unknowable in the sense of the Ultimate. But it rapidly
became apparent that all sorts of things were Unknowable,
which were exactly the things that a man has got to know.
It is necessary to know whether he is responsible or irresponsible,
perfect or imperfect, perfectible or unperfectible, mortal or immortal,
doomed or free, not in order to understand God, but in order
to understand Man. Nothing that leaves these things under a cloud
of religious doubt can possibly pretend to be a Science of Man;
it shrinks from anthropology as completely as from theology.
Has a man free will; or is his sense of choice an illusion?
Has he a conscience, or has his conscience any authority;
or is it only the prejudice of the tribal past?
Is there real hope of settling these things by human reason;
and has that any authority? Is he to regard death as final;
and is he to regard miraculous help as possible? Now it is all
nonsense to say that these are unknowable in any remote sense,
like the distinction between the Cherubim and the Seraphim,
or the Procession of the Holy Ghost. The Schoolmen may have
shot too far beyond our limits in pursuing the Cherubim
and Seraphim. But in asking whether a man can choose or whether a man
will die, they were asking ordinary questions in natural history;
like whether a cat can scratch or whether a dog can smell.
Nothing calling itself a complete Science of Man can shirk them.
And the great Agnostics did shirk them. They may have said
they had no scientific evidence; in that case they failed
to produce even a scientific hypothesis. What they generally
did produce was a wildly unscientific contradiction.
Most Monist moralists simply said that Man has no choice;
but he must think and act heroically as if he had.
Huxley made morality, and even Victorian morality, in the exact
sense, supernatural. He said it had arbitrary rights above nature;
a sort of theology without theism.
I do not know for certain why St. Thomas was called the Angelic Doctor:
whether it was that he had an angelic temper, or the intellectuality
of an Angel; or whether there was a later legend that he
concentrated on Angels--especially on the points of needles.
If so, I do not quite understand how this idea arose; history has
many examples of an irritating habit of labelling somebody
in connection with something, as if he never did any thing else.
Who was it who began the inane habit of referring to Dr. Johnson
as "our lexicographer"; as if he never did anything but write
a dictionary? Why do most people insist on meeting the large
and far-reaching mind of Pascal at its very narrowest point:
the point at which it was sharpened into a spike by the spite
of the Jansenists against the Jesuits? It is just possible,
for all I know, that this labelling of Aquinas as a specialist
was an obscure depreciation of him as a universalist. For that is
a very common trick for the belittling of literary or scientific men.
St. Thomas must have made a certain number of enemies, though he hardly
ever treated them as enemies. Unfortunately, good temper is
sometimes more irritating than bad temper. And he had, after all,
done a great deal of damage, as many medieval men would have thought;
and, what is more curious, a great deal of damage to both sides.
He had been a revolutionist against Augustine and a traditionalist
against Averrhoes. He might appear to some to have tried to wreck
that ancient beauty of the city of God, which bore some resemblance
to the Republic of Plato. He might appear to others to have
inflicted a blow on the advancing and levelling forces of Islam,
as dramatic as that of Godfrey storming Jerusalem. It is possible
that these enemies, by wax of damning with faint praise, talked about
his very respectable little work on Angels: as a man might say
that Darwin was really reliable when writing on coral-insects;
or that some of Milton's Latin poems were very creditable indeed.
But this is only a conjecture, and many other conjectures are possible.
And I am disposed to think that St. Thomas really was rather specially
interested in the nature of Angels, for the same reason that made him
even more interested in the nature of Men. It was a part of that
strong personal interest in things subordinate and semidependent,
which runs through his whole system: a hierarchy of higher and
lower liberties. He was interested in the problem of the Angel,
as he was interested in the problem of the Man, because it was a problem;
and especially because it was a problem of an intermediate creature.
I do not pretend to deal here with this mysterious quality,
as he conceives it to exist in that inscrutable intellectual being,
who is less than God but more than Man. But it was this quality
of a link in the chain, or a rung in the ladder, which mainly concerned
the theologian, in developing his own particular theory or degrees.
Above all, it is this which chiefly moves him, when he finds
so fascinating the central mystery of Man. And for him the point
is always that Man is not a balloon going up into the sky nor a mole
burrowing merely in the earth; but rather a thing like a tree.
whose roots are fed from the earth, while its highest branches seem
to rise almost to the stars.
I have pointed out that mere modern free-thought has left everything
in a fog, including itself. The assertion that thought is free led
first to the denial that will is free; but even about that there was
no real determination among the Determinists. In practice, they told
men that they must treat their will as free though it was not free.
In other words, Man must live a double life; which is exactly the old
heresy of Siger of Brabant about the Double Mind. In other words,
the nineteenth century left everything in chaos: and the importance
of Thomism to the twentieth century is that it may give us back
a cosmos. We can give here only the rudest sketch of how Aquinas,
like the Agnostics, beginning in the cosmic cellars, yet climbed
to the cosmic towers.
Without pretending to span within such limits the essential
Thomist idea, I may be allowed to throw out a sort of rough
version of the fundamental question, which I think I have
known myself, consciously or unconsciously since my childhood.
When a child looks out of the nursery window and sees anything,
say the green lawn of the garden, what does he actually know;
or does he know anything? There are all sorts of nursery
games of negative philosophy played round this question.
A brilliant Victorian scientist delighted in declaring
that the child does not see any grass at all; but only a sort
of green mist reflected in a tiny mirror of the human eve.
This piece of rationalism has always struck me as almost
insanely irrational. If he is not sure of the existence
of the grass, which he sees through the glass of a window,
how on earth can he be sure of the existence of the retina,
which he sees through the glass of a microscope?
If sight deceives, why can it not go on deceiving?
Men of another school answer that grass is a mere green impression
on the mind; and that he can be sure of nothing except the mind.
They declare that he can only be conscious of his
own consciousness; which happens to be the one thing that we
know the child is not conscious of at all. In that sense,
it would be far truer to say that there is grass and no child,
than to say that there is a conscious child but no grass.
St. Thomas Aquinas, suddenly intervening in this nursery quarrel,
says emphatically that the child is aware of Ens. Long before he knows
that grass is grass, or self is self, he knows that something
is something. Perhaps it would be best to say very emphatically
(with a blow on the table), "There is an Is". That is as much
monkish credulity as St. Thomas asks of us at the start.
Very few unbelievers start by asking us to believe so little.
And yet, upon this sharp pin-point of reality, he rears by long
logical processes that have never really been successfully overthrown,
the whole cosmic system of Christendom.
Thus, Aquinas insists very profoundly but very practically,
that there instantly enters, with this idea of affirmation the idea
of contradiction. It is instantly apparent, even to the child,
that there cannot be both affirmation and contradiction.
Whatever you call the thing he sees, a moon or a mirage
or a sensation or a state of consciousness, when he sees it,
he knows it is not true that he does not see it.
Or whatever you call what he is supposed to be doing,
seeing or dreaming or being conscious of an impression, he knows
that if he is doing it, it is a lie to say he is not doing it.
Therefore there has already entered something beyond even
the first fact of being; there follows it like its shadow
the first fundamental creed or commandment, that a thing cannot
be and not be. Henceforth, in common or popular language,
there is a false and true. I say in popular language,
because Aquinas is nowhere more subtle than in pointing out that
being is not strictly the same as truth; seeing truth must mean
the appreciation of being by some mind capable of appreciating it.
But in a general sense there has entered that primeval world of
pure actuality, the division and dilemma that brings the ultimate
sort of war into the world; the everlasting duel between Yes
and No. This is the dilemma that many sceptics have darkened
the universe and dissolved the mind solely in order to escape.
They are those who maintain that there is something that is
both Yes and No. I do not know whether they pronounce it Yo.
The next step following on this acceptance of actuality or certainty,
or whatever we call it in popular language, is much more difficult
to explain in that language. But it represents exactly the point
at which nearly all other systems go wrong, and in taking the third
step abandon the first. Aquinas has affirmed that our first sense
of fact is a fact; and he cannot go back on it without falsehood.
But when we come to look at the fact or facts, as we know them,
we observe that they have a rather queer character; which has made
many moderns grow strangely and restlessly sceptical about them.
For instance, they are largely in a state of change, from being one thing
to being another; or their qualities are relative to other things;
or they appear to move incessantly; or they appear to vanish entirely.
At this point, as I say, many sages lose hold of the first principle
of reality, which they would concede at first; and fall back on saying
that there is nothing except change; or nothing except comparison;
or nothing except flux; or in effect that there is nothing at all.
Aquinas turns the whole argument the other way, keeping in line with his
first realisation of reality. There is no doubt about the being of being,
even if it does sometimes look like becoming; that is because what we see
is not the fullness of being; or (to continue a sort of colloquial slang)
we never see being being as much as it can. Ice is melted into cold
water and cold water is heated into hot water; it cannot be all
three at once. But this does not make water unreal or even relative;
it only means that its being is limited to being one thing at a time.
But the fullness of being is everything that it can be; and without it
the lesser or approximate forms of being cannot be explained as anything;
unless they are explained away as nothing.
This crude outline can only at the best be historical rather
than philosophical. It is impossible to compress into it
the metaphysical proofs of such an idea; especially in
the medieval metaphysical language. But this distinction
in philosophy is tremendous as a turning point in history.
Most thinkers, on realising the apparent mutability of being,
have really forgotten their own realisation of the being,
and believed only in the mutability. They cannot even say
that a thing changes into another thing; for them there
is no instant in the process at which it is a thing at all.
It is only a change. It would be more logical to call it
nothing changing into nothing, than to say (on these principles)
that there ever was or will be a moment when the thing is itself.
St. Thomas maintains that the ordinary thing at any moment
is something; but it is not everything that it could be.
There is a fullness of being, in which it could be everything
that it can be. Thus, while most sages come at last to nothing
but naked change, he comes to the ultimate thing that is unchangeable,
because it is all the other things at once. While they describe
a change which is really a change in nothing, he describes
a changelessness which includes the changes of everything.
Things change because they are not complete; but their reality
can only be explained as part of something that is complete.
It is God.
Historically, at least, it was round this sharp and crooked corner
that all the sophists have followed each other while the great
Schoolman went up the high road of experience and expansion;
to the beholding of cities, to the building of cities. They all
failed at this early stage because, in the words of the old game,
they took away the number they first thought of. The recognition
of something, of a thing or things, is the first act of the intellect.
But because the examination of a thing shows it is not a fixed
or final thing, they inferred that there is nothing fixed or final.
Thus, in various ways, they all began to see a thing as something
thinner than a thing; a wave; a weakness; an abstract instability.
St. Thomas, to use the same rude figure, saw a thing that was thicker
than a thing; that was even more solid than the solid but secondary facts
he had started by admitting as facts. Since we know them to be real,
any elusive or bewildering element in their reality cannot really
be unreality; and must be merely their relation to the real reality.
A hundred human philosophies, ranging over the earth from Nominalism
to Nirvana and Maya, from formless evolution to mindless quietism,
all come from this first break in the Thomist chain; the notion that,
because what we see does not satisfy us or explain itself,
it is not even what we see. That cosmos is a contradiction
in terms and strangles itself; but Thomism cuts itself free.
The defect we see, in what is, is simply that it is not all that is.
God is more actual even than Man; more actual even than Matter;
for God with all His powers at every instant is immortally in action.
A cosmic comedy of a very curious sort occurred recently;
involving the views of very brilliant men. such as Mr. Bernard Shaw
and the Dean of St. Paul's. Briefly, freethinkers of many
sorts had often said they had no need of a Creation,
because the cosmos had always existed and always would exist.
Mr. Bernard Shaw said he had become an atheist because the universe
had gone on making itself from the beginning or without a beginning;
Dean Inge later displayed consternation at the very idea
that the universe could have an end. Most modern Christians,
living by tradition where medieval Christians could live by logic
or reason, vaguely felt that it was a dreadful idea to deprive them
of the Day of Judgment. Most modern agnostics (who are delighted
to have their ideas called dreadful) cried out all the more,
with one accord, that the self-producing, self-existent, truly
scientific universe had never needed to have a beginning and could
not come to an end. At this very instant, quite suddenly,
like the look-out man on a ship who shouts a warning about a rock,
the real man of science, the expert who was examining the facts,
announced in a loud voice that the universe was coming to an end.
He had not been listening, of course, to the talk of the amateurs;
he had been actually examining the texture of matter; and he said
it was disintegrating: the world was apparently blowing itself
up by a gradual explosion called energy; the whole business
would certainly have an end and had presumably had a beginning.
This was very shocking indeed; not to the orthodox, but rather
specially to the unorthodox; who are rather more easily shocked.
Dean Inge, who had been lecturing the orthodox for years
on their stern duty of accepting all scientific discoveries,
positively wailed aloud over this truly tactless scientific discovery;
and practically implored the scientific discoverers to go away
and discover something different. It seems almost incredible;
but it is a fact that he asked what God would have to amuse Him,
if the universe ceased. That is a measure of how much the modern
mind needs Thomas Aquinas. But even without Aquinas, I can
hardly conceive any educated man, let alone such a learned man,
believing in God at all without assuming that God contains
in Himself every perfection including eternal joy; and does not
require the solar system to entertain him like a circus.
To step out of these presumptions, prejudices and private disappointments,
into the world of St. Thomas, is like escaping from a scuffle in a dark
room into the broad daylight. St. Thomas says, quite straightforwardly,
that he himself believes this world has a beginning and end;
because such seems to be the teaching of the Church; the validity of which
mystical message to mankind he defends elsewhere with dozens of quite
different arguments. Anyhow, the Church said the world would end;
and apparently the Church was right; always supposing (as we are always
supposed to suppose) that the latest men of science are right.
But Aquinas says he sees no particular reason, in reason, why this
world should not be a world without end; or even without beginning.
And he is quite certain that, if it were entirely without end
or beginning, there would still be exactly the same logical need
of a Creator. Anybody who does not see that, he gently implies,
does not really understand what is meant by a Creator.
For what St. Thomas means is not a medieval picture of an old king;
but this second step in the great argument about Ens or Being;
the second point which is so desperately difficult to put correctly
in popular language. That is why I have introduced it here in
the particular form of the argument that there must be a Creator
even if there is no Day of Creation. Looking at Being as it is now,
as the baby looks at the grass, we see a second thing about it;
in quite popular language, it looks secondary and dependent.
Existence exists; but it is not sufficiently self-existent;
and would never become so merely by going on existing.
The same primary sense which tells us it is Being,
tells us that it is not perfect Being; not merely imperfect
in the popular controversial sense of containing sin or sorrow;
but imperfect as Being; less actual than the actuality it implies.
For instance, its Being is often only Becoming; beginning to Be
or ceasing to Be; it implies a more constant or complete thing
of which it gives in itself no example. That is the meaning
of that basic medieval phrase, "Everything that is moving is
moved by another"; which, in the clear subtlety of St. Thomas,
means inexpressibly more than the mere Deistic "somebody wound
up the clock" with which it is probably often confounded.
Anyone who thinks deeply will see that motion has about
it an essential incompleteness, which approximates to
something more complete.
The actual argument is rather technical; and concerns the fact
that potentiality does not explain itself; moreover, in any case,
unfolding must be of something folded. Suffice it to say that
the mere modern evolutionists, who would ignore the argument do
not do so because they have discovered any flaw in the argument;
for they have never discovered the argument itself.
They do so because they are too shallow to see the flaw
in their own argument for the weakness of their thesis
is covered by fashionable phraseology, as the strength
of the old thesis is covered by old-fashioned phraseology.
But for those who really think, there is always something
really unthinkable about the whole evolutionary cosmos, as they
conceive it; because it is something coming out of nothing;
an ever-increasing flood of water pouring out of an empty jug.
Those who can simply accept that, without even seeing the difficulty,
are not likely to go so deep as Aquinas and see the solution
of his difficulty. In a word, the world does not explain itself,
and cannot do so merely by continuing to expand itself.
But anyhow it is absurd for the Evolutionist to complain that it
is unthinkable for an admittedly unthinkable God to make
everything out of nothing and then pretend that it is more
thinkable that nothing should turn itself into everything.
We have seen that most philosophers simply fail to philosophise
about things because they change; they also fail to philosophise
about things because they differ. We have no space to follow
St. Thomas through all these negative heresies; but a word must be said
about Nominalism or the doubt founded on the things that differ.
Everyone knows that the Nominalist declared that things differ
too much to be really classified; so that they are only labelled.
Aquinas was a firm but moderate Realist, and therefore held that
there really are general qualities; as that human beings are human,
amid other paradoxes. To be an extreme Realist would have taken him
too near to being a Platonist. He recognized that individuality
is real, but said that it coexists with a common character
making some generalisation possible; in fact, as in most things,
he said exactly what all common sense would say, if no intelligent
heretics had ever disturbed it. Nevertheless, they still
continue to disturb it. I remember when Mr. H. G. Wells had
an alarming fit of Nominalist philosophy; and poured forth book
after book to argue that everything is unique and untypical
as that a man is so much an individual that he is not even a man.
It is a quaint and almost comic fact, that this chaotic negation
especially attracts those who are always complaining of social chaos,
and who propose to replace it by the most sweeping social regulations.
It is the very men who say that nothing can be classified,
who say that everything must be codified. Thus Mr. Bernard Shaw
said that the only golden rule is that there is no golden rule.
He prefers an iron rule; as in Russia.
But this is only a small inconsistency in some moderns
as individuals. There is a much deeper inconsistency in them
as theorists in relation to the general theory called
Creative Evolution. They seem to imagine that they avoid
the metaphysical doubt about mere change by assuming (it is not
very clear why) that the change will always be for the better.
But the mathematical difficulty of finding a corner in a
curve is not altered by turning the chart upside down,
and saying that a downward curve is now an upward curve.
The point is that there is no point in the curve; no place
at which we have a logical right to say that the curve has
reached its climax, or revealed its origin, or come to its end.
It makes no difference that they choose to be cheerful about it,
and say, "It is enough that there is always a beyond";
instead of lamenting, like the more realistic poets of the past,
over the tragedy of mere Mutability. It is not enough that
there is always a beyond; because it might be beyond bearing.
Indeed the only defence of this view is that sheer boredom
is such an agony, that any movement is a relief. But the truth
is that they have never read St. Thomas, or they would find,
with no little terror, that they really agree with him.
What they really mean is that change is not mere change;
but is the unfolding of something; and if it is thus unfolded,
though the unfolding takes twelve million years, it must be
there already. In other words, they agree with Aquinas that there
is everywhere potentiality that has not reached its end in act.
But if it is a definite potentiality, and if it can only
end in a definite act, why then there is a Great Being,
in whom all potentialities already exist as a plan of action.
In other words, it is impossible even to say that the change
is for the better, unless the best exists somewhere, both before
and after the change. Otherwise it is indeed mere change,
as the blankest sceptics or the blackest pessimists would see it.
Suppose two entirely new paths open before the progress of
Creative Evolution. How is the evolutionist to know which Beyond
is the better; unless he accepts from the past and present some
standard of the best? By their superficial theory everything
can change; everything can improve, even the nature of improvement.
But in their submerged common sense, they do not really think
that an ideal of kindness could change to an ideal of cruelty.
It is typical of them that they will sometimes rather timidly use
the word Purpose; but blush at the very mention of the word Person.
St. Thomas is the very reverse of anthropomorphic, in spite
of his shrewdness as an anthropologist. Some theologians have
even claimed that he is too much of an agnostic; and has left
the nature of God too much of an intellectual abstraction.
But we do not need even St. Thomas, we do not need anything but our own
common sense, to tell us that if there has been from the beginning
anything that can possibly be called a Purpose, it must reside in
something that has the essential elements of a Person. There cannot
be an intention hovering in the air all by itself, any more than
a memory that nobody remembers or a joke that nobody has made.
The only chance for those supporting such suggestions is to take
refuge in blank and bottomless irrationality; and even then it is
impossible to prove that anybody has any right to be unreasonable,
if St. Thomas has no right to be reasonable.
In a sketch that aims only at the baldest simplification, this does
seem to me the simplest truth about St. Thomas the philosopher.
He is one, so to speak, who is faithful to his first love;
and it is love at first sight. I mean that he immediately
recognised a real quality in things; and afterwards resisted all
the disintegrating doubts arising from the nature of those things.
That is why I emphasise, even in the first few pages,
the fact that there is a sort of purely Christian humility
and fidelity underlying his philosophic realism.
St. Thomas could as truly say, of having seen merely a stick
or a stone, what St. Paul said of having seen the rending
of the secret heavens, "I was not disobedient to the heavenly
vision". For though the stick or the stone is an earthly vision,
it is through them that St. Thomas finds his way to heaven;
and the point is that he is obedient to the vision; he does
not go back on it. Nearly all the other sages who have led
or misled mankind do, on one excuse or another, go back on it.
They dissolve the stick or the stone in chemical solutions
of scepticism; either in the medium of mere time and change;
or in the difficulties of classification of unique units;
or in the difficulty of recognising variety while admitting unity.
The first of these three is called debate about flux
or formless transition; the second is the debate about
Nominalism and Realism, or the existence of general ideas;
the third is called the ancient metaphysical riddle of the One
and the Many. But they can all be reduced under a rough image
to this same statement about St. Thomas. He is still true to
the first truth and refusing the first treason. He will not deny
what he has seen, though it be a secondary and diverse reality.
He will not take away the numbers he first thought of,
though there may be quite a number of them.
He has seen grass; and will not say he has not seen grass, because it
today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven. That is the substance
of all scepticism about change, transition, transformism and the rest.
He will not say that there is no grass but only growth. If grass grows
and withers, it can only mean that it is part of a greater thing,
which is even more real; not that the grass is less real than it looks.
St. Thomas has a really logical right to say, in the words of
the modern mystic, A. E.: "I begin by the grass to be bound again
to the Lord".
He has seen grass and grain; and he will not say that they do
not differ, because there is something common to grass and grain.
Nor will he say that there is nothing common to grass and grain,
because they do really differ. He will not say, with the extreme
Nominalists, that because grain can be differentiated into all sorts
of fruitage, or grass trodden into mire with any kind of weed,
therefore there can be no classification to distinguish weeds from
slime or to draw a fine distinction between cattle-food and cattle.
He will not say with the extreme Platonists, on the other hand,
that he saw the perfect fruit in his own head by shutting
his eyes, before he saw any difference between grain and grass.
He saw one thing and then another thing and then a common quality;
but he does not really pretend that he saw the quality before the thing.
He has seen grass and gravel; that is to say, he has seen things
really different; things not classified together like grass and grains.
The first flash of fact shows us a world of really strange things
not merely strange to us, but strange to each other. The separate
things need have nothing in common except Being. Everything is Being;
but it is not true that everything is Unity. It is here, as I
have said, that St. Thomas does definitely one might say defiantly,
part company with the Pantheist and Monist. All things are;
but among the things that are is the thing called difference,
quite as much as the thing called similarity. And here again we
begin to be bound again to the Lord, not only by the universality
of grass, but by the incompatibility of grass and gravel.
For this world of different and varied beings is especially the world
of the Christian Creator; the world of created things, like things
made by an artist; as compared with the world that is only one thing,
with a sort of shimmering and shifting veil of misleading change;
which is the conception of so many of the ancient religions of Asia
and the modern sophistries of Germany. In the face of these, St. Thomas
still stands stubborn in the same obstinate objective fidelity.
He has seen grass and gravel; and he is not disobedient to
the heavenly vision.
To sum up; the reality of things, the mutability of things,
the diversity of things, and all other such things that can be
attributed to things, is followed carefully by the medieval philosopher,
without losing touch with the original point of the reality.
There is no space us this book to specify the thousand
steps of thought by which he shows that he is right.
But the point is that, even apart from being right he is real.
He is a realist in a rather curious sense of his own, which is a
third thing, distinct from the almost contrary medieval and modern
meanings of the word. Even the doubts and difficulties about reality
have driven him to believe in more reality rather than less.
The deceitfulness of things which has had so sad an effect
on so many sages, has almost a contrary effect on this sage.
If things deceive us, it is by being more real than they seem.
As ends in themselves they always deceive us; but as things
tending to a greater end, they are even more real than we
think them. If they seem to have a relative unreality
(so to speak) it is because they are potential and not actual;
they are unfulfilled, like packets of seeds or boxes of fireworks.
They have it in them to be more real than they are.
And there is an upper world of what the Schoolman called Fruition,
or Fulfillment, in which all this relative relativity becomes actuality;
in which the trees burst into flower or the rockets into flame.
Here I leave the reader, on the very lowest rung of those ladders
of logic, by which St. Thomas besieged and mounted the House
of Man. It is enough to say that by arguments as honest and laborious,
he climbed up to the turrets and talked with angels on the roofs
of gold. This is, in a very rude outline, his philosophy;
it is impossible in such an outline to describe his theology.
Anyone writing so small a book about so big a man, must leave
out something. Those who know him best will best understand why,
after some considerable consideration, I have left out the
only important thing.
CHESTERTON-St Thomas Aquinas - V THE REAL LIFE OF ST. THOMAS