26 September 2007

Chesterton on St. Thomas

My time at the University of St.Thomas, which was merely a college back then, taught me to appreciate St. Thomas Aquinas, who the college is named after. I was required to take three theology and two philosophy classes. Courses I took covered the early church fathers, like Origin and Eusebius; greats like Plato and Aristotle; and scripture studies. Sadly, most of it I have no recollection of. I have reread notes that I scribbled into old texts that I can’t even understand or remember writing. Back then, I was just putting in my time, taking my required classes and trying hard to not have college studies interfere with my social life.

The one thing I have always retained a faint memory of is studying the Summa Theologica. I spent one entire semester drowning in it. My kindly, orthodox and wonderful Jesuit professor gently patted my wounded intellect when I came to him for help. I really tried to understand St. Thomas down to the core of what he wrote. Sometimes, the best approach is a superficial understanding, an overview, on your initial reading and then try a second time to get more out of it. But the Summa was already consuming most of my studies and one reading was all I had time for. The rest of the class was sprinkled with stories of Sparky the Wonder Dog, a tool the professor used to help us understand various topics.

Finally, I have gotten to reading G. K. Chesterton’s book on St. Thomas. For some reason, it is a much easier read than other Chestertonian books. I had started Everlasting Man and abandoned it for St. Thomas. Chesterton, writing over 70 years ago, provides a compelling background story as to why the University of St. Thomas should never have changed the name of Albertus Magnus Hall and renamed it John Roach Center. I doubt the Board of Directors consulted the Theology or History departments about the name change. Aquinas Hall and Albertus Magnus Hall were two buildings on campus named for great men, giants really, of Church history. These two buildings stood “holding hands” across the arches for decades until new science and engineering buildings were built and the old science building, Albertus Magnus Hall, became obsolete. Funny how progress changes and erases so much.

Here’s a quote, not necessarily the best quote from the book, but one I find interesting. Chesterton draws parallels and distinctions between St. Francis and St. Thomas and then compares St. Thomas to a variety of other historical figures, one being St. Augustine. With everything St. Thomas and St. Augustine wrote, especially St. Augustine on humility, it is interesting how the following quote demonstrates a surprising lack of humility.

We must be just to those huge human figures, who are in fact the hinges of history. However strong, and rightly strong, be our own controversial conviction, it must never mislead us into thinking that something trivial has transformed the world. So it is with that great Augustinian monk, who avenged all the ascetic Augustinians of the Middle Ages; and whose broad and burly figure has been big enough to block out for four centuries the distant human mountain of Aquinas. It is not, as the moderns delight to say, a question of theology. The Protestant theology of Martin Luther was a thing that no modern Protestant would be seen dead in a field with; or if the phrase be too flippant, would be specially anxious to touch with a barge-pole. That Protestantism was pessimism; it was nothing but bare insistence on the hopelessness of all human virtue, as an attempt to escape hell. That Lutheranism is now quite unreal; more modern phases of Lutheranism are rather more unreal; but Luther was not unreal. He was one of those great elemental barbarians, to whom it is indeed given to change the world. To compare those two figures hulking so big in history, in any philosophical sense, would of course be futile and even unfair. On a great map like the mind of Aquinas, the mind of Luther would be almost invisible. But it is not altogether untrue to say, as so many journalists have said without caring whether it was true or untrue, that Luther opened an epoch; and began the modern world.

He was the first man who ever consciously used his consciousness or what was later called his Personality. He had as a fact a rather strong personality. Aquinas had an even stronger personality; he had a massive and magnetic presence; he had an intellect that could act like a huge system of artillery spread over the whole world; he had that instantaneous presence of mind in debate, which alone really deserves the name of wit. But it never occurred to him to use anything except his wits, in defence of a truth distinct from himself. It never occurred to Aquinas to use Aquinas as a weapon. There is not a trace of his ever using his personal advantages, of birth or body or brain or breeding, in debate with anybody. In short, he belonged to an age of intellectual unconsciousness, to an age of intellectual innocence, which was very intellectual. Now Luther did begin the modern mood of depending on things not merely intellectual. It is not a question of praise or blame; it matters little whether we say that he was a strong personality, or that he was a bit of a big bully. When he quoted a Scripture text, inserting a word that is not in Scripture, he was content to shout back at all hecklers: "Tell them that Dr. Martin Luther will have it so!" That is what we now call Personality. A little later it was called Psychology. After that it was called Advertisement or Salesmanship. But we are not arguing about advantages or disadvantages. It is due to this great Augustinian pessimist to say, not only that he did triumph at last over the Angel of the Schools, but that he did in a very real sense make the modern world. He destroyed Reason; and substituted Suggestion.

It is said that the great Reformer publicly burned the Summa Theologica and the works of Aquinas; and with the bonfire of such books this book may well come to an end. They say it is very difficult to burn a book; and it must have been exceedingly difficult to burn such a mountain of books as the Dominican had contributed to the controversies of Christendom. Anyhow, there is something lurid and apocalyptic about the idea of such destruction, when we consider the compact complexity of all that encyclopaedic survey of social and moral and theoretical things. All the close-packed definitions that excluded so many errors and extremes; all the broad and balanced judgments upon the clash of loyalties or the choice of evils; all the liberal speculations upon the limits of government or the proper conditions of justice; all the distinctions between the use and abuse of private property; all the rules and exceptions about the great evil of war; all the allowances for human weakness and all the provisions for human health; all this mass of medieval humanism shrivelled and curled up in smoke before the eyes of its enemy; and that great passionate peasant rejoiced darkly, because the day of the Intellect was over. Sentence by sentence it burned, and syllogism by syllogism; and the golden maxims turned to golden flames in that last and dying glory of all that had once been the great wisdom of the Greeks. The great central Synthesis of history, that was to have linked the ancient with the modern world, went up in smoke and, for half the world, was forgotten like a vapour.

The entire book can be viewed here.

3 comments:

Ray from MN said...

Good post, Monica

I attempted to read Chesterton's books on Francis and Thomas last winter but couldn't get through them.

But maybe the time is right now. I really liked those paragraphs you cited. I guess I'll go back to the library and give it another try.

Sanctus Belle said...

So you went to St. Thomas?? I'm an alum of St. Kates! Well...I know two very different schools to be sure! Thankfully, all my theology classes were taught by professors from St. Thomas and were very orthodox. I remember my Catholic Theology course, taught by this great priest with a Czek accent and my kindly and quite old Biomedical Ethics prof, he was chair of the Dept and very orthodox. I credit these two men in large part with my return to the Faith. Sure enough NO ONE at St. Kates would have EVER inspired me orthodoxy - no it was all feminist crap there! O Lord, please reform the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet or get that outta that school! Amen+

swissmiss said...

Ray:
When are you going to have time for all this? The whole reason I go to the cabin is just to get some time, late at night, to read. Otherwise, at home I'm prone to watch the news or sit on the computer!

Sanctus:
My mother was an alum of St. Kate's and forbid me from going there. The "feminist crap" has been going on for a long, long time. She graduated in 1954 with a degree in nursing and never looked back. St. Thomas, for me, is a mixed bag. I had great theology profs, except one priest I would describe as placing more emphasis on less traditional things, but still didn't stray from the Faith. I had Father Welzbacher for a class in Dante's Purgatory, which was really good. Even the profs who weren't priests were very good. Other classes I was taught un-Catholic things in. Maybe I'll post about them some day. I wasn't even a good Catholic back then and it still urked me to hear a professor say goofy things. Many things that have transpired after I left St. Thomas have bothered me even more. May the patron saints of theses colleges get them back on track!