These two saints (Francis of Assiss and Thomas Aquinas) were `in the most exact sense of the term, Humanists; because they were insisting on the immense importance of the human being,’ because they were `strengthening that staggering doctrine of Incarnation’. The more `rational or natural’ they became, the more `orthodox’ they became. Both `the Thomist movement in metaphysics ‘with its recovery, thanks to Aristotle, whom Thomas had `baptized’ and miraculously `raised… from the dead’, of `the most defiant of all dogmas, the wedding of God with Man and therefore with Matter’ — and also `the Franciscan movement in morals and manners’ were `an enlargement and a liberation’, both were `emphatically a growth of Christian theology to to , within’ and `emphatically not a shrinking of Christian theology under heathen or even human influences’.
Both Francis and Thomas `felt sub-consciously that the `hold’ of Christians was `slipping on the solid Catholic doctrine and discipline, worn smooth by more than a thousand years of routine; and that the Faith needed to be shown under a new light and dealt will’ from another angle’. It had become `too Platonist to be popular. It needed something like the shrewd and homely touch of Aristotle to turn it again into a religion of common sense.’
Christian theology `tended more and more to be a sort of dried up Platonism; a thing of diagrams and abstractions … not sufficiently touched by that great thing that is by definition almost the opposite of abstraction: Incarnation’. The Platonic influence was definitely tending towards a Manichaean philosophy, which existed outside the Church in the `fiercer’ form of the Albigensian heresy and inside the Church in the `subtler’ form of an Augustinianism that ‘derived partly from Plato’ .
Thomas’ ‘Optimism’ was in direct opposition to all this pessimism it about the body and the material: `He did, with a most solid and colossal conviction, believe in Life…’. Against `the morbid Renaissance intellectual who wondered `To be or not to be — that is the question’, the `massive medieval doctor’ would `most certainly have replied `in a voice of thunder’: To be — that is the answer.’ He was `vitally and vividly alone in declaring that live is a living story, with a great beginning and a great end’.
The whole Thomist system rested on `one huge and simple idea’, that of what Thomas called in Latin Ens, unfortunately translated by the English to `being’, which, Chesterton complained, `has a wild and woolly sort of sound’, whereas Ens `has a sound like the English word End’: `It is final and even abrupt; it is nothing except itself.’ And it was upon `this sharp pin-point of reality’ that `There is an is’, that Thomas had reared ‘the whole cosmic system of Christendom’.
Thomas was not `ashamed’ to say that his reason was `fed’ by his senses and that as far as his reason was concerned he felt `obliged to treat all this reality as real’. For him there was `this primary idea of a central common sense that is nourished by the five senses’. As `one of the great liberators of the human intellect’, he `reconciled religion with reason.. . expanded it towards experimental science. . . insisted that the senses were the windows of the soul and that the reason had a divine right to feed upon fact that it was the business of the Faith to digest the strong meat toughest and most practical of pagan philosophies’. It was Thomas who was the real `Reformer’, while the later Protestants like Luther, for whom the reason was `utterly untrustworthy’, were `by comparison reactionaries’.
Now because Thomas `stood up stoutly for the fact that a man’s body is his body as his mind is his mind; and that he can only be a balance and of the two’, this did not in the least mean he was a materialist in the modern sense, for this conviction was `specially connected with the startling sort of dogma, which the Modernist can least accept; the Resurrection of the Body’.
But, although Thomas’s argument for revelation was `quite rationalistic’, it was also `decidedly democratic and popular’: for he thought that `the souls of all the ordinary hard-working and simple-minded people’ were `quite as important as the souls of thinkers and truth-seekers’, and he wondered how the masses as opposed to the intellectuals could `find time for the amount of reasoning that is needed to find truth’. He believed in `scientific enquiry’ but he also had `a strong empathy with the average man’, concluding that Revelation was necessary since `men must receive the highest moral truths in a miraculous manner; or most men would not receive them at all’. In a similar way, because he had a `strong sense of human dignity and liberty’, he insisted on free will: `Upon this sublime and perilous liberty hang heaven and hell, and mysterious drama of the soul.’
The `materialism’ of Aquinas was nothing other than `Christian humility’, for he 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 the plates and dishes in the monastery’. Anyway, Christianity had brought about a revolution in the human attitude towards the senses, toward sensations of the body and the experiences of the common man’, which could now be regarded `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.
Since `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’, it was not surprising that there was in the pre-Thomist Augustinian world `an emotional mood to abandon the body in despair’.
Yet, once `the Incarnation had become the idea that is central in our civilization, 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’. And indeed there was in Thomas an unmistakably ‘positive’ attitude to creation, a mind `which is filled and soaked as with sunshine with the warmth of the wonder of created things’. He was positively `avid in his acceptance of Things; in his hunger and thirst for Things’:
It was his special spiritual thesis that there really are things; and not only the Thing; that the Many existed as well as the One. I do not mean things to eat or drink or wear, though he never denied to these their place in the noble hierarchy of Being; but rather things to think about, and especially things to prove, to experience and to know.
Aquinas passionately believed in the reason, but he also thought that everything that is in the intellect has been in the senses’. And he was a philosopher who remained `faithful to his first love’, which was `love at first sight’: `I mean that he immediately recognized a real quality in things; and afterwards resisted all the disintegrating doubts arising from the nature of those things.’
Underlying this philosophical realism was `a sort of purely Christian humility and fidelity’, which ensured that he remained `true to the first truth’ and refused `the first treason’, unlike the many philosophers who `dissolve the stick or the stone in chemical solutions of skepticism; either in the medium of mere time and change; or in the difficulties of classification of unique units; or in the difficulty of recognizing variety while admitting unity’.
But Thomas remained `stubborn in the same obstinate objective fidelity. He has seen grass and gravel; and he is not disobedient to the heavenly vision.’ Even `the doubts and difficulties about reality’ drove him `to believe in more reality rather than less’: `If things deceive us, it is by being more real than they seem.’ If things seemed have a relative unreality’, it was because they were `potential and not actual’, `unfulfilled, like packets of seeds or boxes of fireworks’.
No , other thinker, Chesterton asserts, was `so unmistakably thinking about things and not being misled by the indirect influence of words’. There was an `elemental and primitive poetry that shines through all his thoughts; especially through the thought with which all his thinking begins. It is an intense rightness of his sense of the relation between the mind and the thing outside the mind.’ The `light in all poetry, and indeed in all art’ was the `strangeness of things’ — that is, their `otherness; or what is called their objectivity’.
For Aquinas, `the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards’ not `inwards’, because `the images it seeks are real things’. Their. `romance and glamour’ lay in the fact that they were `real things; things to be found by staring inwards at the mind’. Far from the mind being ‘sufficient to itself’, it was ‘insufficient for itself’: `For this feeding upon fact is itself, as an organ it has an object which is objective; this eating of strange strong meat of reality.’
Aquinas understood that the mind was ‘it merely receptive, in the sense that it absorbs sensations like so much blotting-paper; on that sort of softness has been based all that cowardly materialism, which conceives man as wholly servile to his environment’. But neither did he think that the mind was `purely creative, in the sense that it paints pictures on the windows and then mistakes them for a landscape outside’: `In other words, the essence of the Thomist common sense is that two agencies are at work; reality and the recognition of reality; and their meeting is a sort of marriage.”
It was in fact `a matter of common sense’ that Thomism was `the philosophy of common sense’. For Thomas did 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’. And that was because he `recognized instantly… 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’. It was true in a sense that one could be `a fundamental skeptic’ — but then one could not be `anything else’, and certainly not `a defender of fundamental skepticism’.
In his robust rejection of skepticism, Chesterton is anxious to emphasize, Aquinas supported `the ordinary man’s acceptance of ordinary truisms’. Unlike contemporary intellectuals who despised the masses, Thomas,`the one real Rationalist’ who was given to `the unusual hobby of thinking’, was `arguing for a common sense which would… commend itself to most of the common people’.
Chesterton concludes his remarkable evocation of the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas — a mind, as perceived by him, so highly congenial ‘ to his own in its insistence on the fact of being, in its commitment not only to reason but also to common sense (with its consequent affinity to the common man), in its love of the limitation of definitions — on a dark and sinister note. For there came a day when, `in one sense, perhaps, the Augustinian tradition was avenged after all’ — not that either Augustine or the medieval Augustinians `would have desired’ to see that day.
Nevertheless it was an Augustinian friar who took his revenge on Thomism three centuries after Thomas: `For there was one particular monk in that Augustinian monastery in the German forests, who may be said to have had a single and special talent for emphasis; for emphasis and nothing except emphasis; for emphasis with the quality of earthquake.’ And that emphasis was on the Augustinian emphasis on `the impotence of man before God, the omniscience of God about the destiny of man, the need for holy fear and the humiliation of intellectual pride, more than the opposite and corresponding truths of free will or human dignity or good works’. It was this tradition that
came out of its cell again, in the day of storm and ruin, and cried out with a new and mighty voice for an elemental and emotional religion, and for the destruction of all philosophies. It had a peculiar horror and loathing of the great Greek philosophies, and of the scholasticism that had been founded on these philosophies.
It had one theory that was the destruction of all theories; in fact it had its own theology which was itself the death of theology. Man could say nothing to God, nothing from God, nothing about God, except an almost inarticulate cry for mercy and for the supernatural help of Christ, in a world where all natural things were useless. Reason was useless. Man could not move himself an inch any more than a stone. Man could not trust what was in his head any more than a turnip. Nothing remained in earth of heaven, but the name of Christ lifted in that lonely imprecation; awful as the cry of a beast in pain.
Chesterton’s searing indictment of Martin Luther is as striking as Newman’s own great, extended denunciation in the last of his Lectures on the Doctrine of Justification (1838) of Luther’s alleged religion of feelings. Chesterton insists that nothing `trivial’ had `transformed the world’. One of the `huge, hinges of history’, Luther’s `broad and burly figure enough to blot out for four centuries the distant human mountain of Aquinas’. Not that Luther’s pessimistic theology of `the hopel all human virtue’ was a theology that modern Protestants wouli dead in a field with; or if the phrase be too flippant, would be anxious to touch with a barge-pole’. All that Lutheranism was’: unreal’ — yet `Luther was not unreal’: `He was one of those great barbarians, to whom it is indeed given to change the world.’ `a great map like the mind of Aquinas, the mind of Luther would invisible’, it was `not altogether untrue to say… that Luther epoch; and began the modern world’. It was said that Luther ‘publicly burned the Summa Theologica and the works of Aquinas’:
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; 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 over.