Saturday, January 28, 2006

What would you have of Me, Thomas?

In order to properly celebrate the feast of the great Angelic Doctor - Saint Thomas Aquinas - one of the patrons of this blogg, I am posting a small excerpt from a text on Scholastic Philosophy. (This was also brought on by my friend at New Victorian to which I direct you for more details.)

93. These three self-evident truths are implied and necessarily admitted in every judgment, viz.: the existence of the thinking subject, the principle of contradiction, the natural capacity of our reason to know the truth, i. e., the first fact, the first principle, the first condition of certain knowledge.

Proof. If any of them be denied or doubted, there can be no certitude. For there can be no thought without an existing thinker. There can be no certitude if two contradictories can be simultaneously true. There can be no certitude, if the mind is incapable of certitude.

These three truths cannot be demonstrated without begging the question; for they are, and must be, assumed in every demonstration, since there can be no certain premise in which they are not implied and necessarily admitted.

NOTE (1). - Nor need they be demonstrated, for they are self-evident, and in their very denial are affirmed.
(2). - Hence the absurdity of Kant's criticism or examination of the reliability of reason in its perception of truth. In his examination he employs the very faculty of whose reliability he professes to doubt, and hence involves himself in the contradiction essential to all scepticism.
(3). - Hence, too, the absurdity of Descartes' "Methodical Doubt," as he calls it. He held that a philosopher should try to doubt about all things, until they are demonstrated. Finding he could not doubt of the existence of his own thought, he takes this as the one principle of all philosophy, and thence argues, "I think, therefore I am." But this argument is good for nothing, unless the principle of contradiction and the infallibility of the reason, which perceives and affirms the fact of its own existence, be admitted as true. And even granting the premise, how is the conclusion certain if reason which deduces it be unreliable ? Further, if all our other natural faculties are unreliable, why should not the faculty of consciousness, which tells me I think, be so too?
[Shallo, Scholastic Philosophy 101-102]
If this seems a little complex, it ought not be so. (Children reading this do not have to worry, as you always follow these rules. It's grown-ups who have problems here!) You MUST believe this, and accept it fully and completely unreservedly, if you have any hope of doing anything with your mind, whether it is computing, physics, biology, philosophy, music, math, or even playing football!

As wonderful and compelling and useful as this is, it hardly tells us much about St. Thomas Aquinas. So I will quote from Chesterton's biography of him - a book which the great Thomistic scholar Etienne Gilson remarked:
I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement. Everybody will no doubt admit that it is a "clever" book, but the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so-called "wit" of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame. He has guessed all that which they had tried to demonstrate, and he has said all that which they were more or less clumsily attempting to express in academic formulas. Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed; he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not either help being modest and charitable, so he left it to those who could understand him to know that he was right, and deep; to the others, he apologized for being right, and he made up for being deep by being witty. That is all they can see of him.
[Gilson's quote is from Chesterton by Cyril Clemens, pp. 150-151, quoted in Ward's Gilbert Keith Chesterton 620]
The difficulty is to select a singular jewel for my presentation from this rather small yet very rich treasury. It will be a little lengthy, but since it deals with our Lord, I think you will find it over far too soon.
... probably the most representative revelation of this side of [Aquinas'] life may be found in the celebrated story of the miracle of the crucifix; when in the stillness of the church of St. Dominic in Naples, a voice spoke from the carven Christ, and told the kneeling Friar that he had written rightly, and offered him the choice of a reward among all the things of the world.
Not all, I think, have appreciated the point of this particular story as applied to this particular saint. It is an old story, in so far as it is simply the offer made to a devotee of solitude or simplicity, of the pick of all the prizes of life. The hermit, true or false, the fakir, the fanatic or the cynic, Stylites on his column or Diogenes in his tub, can all be pictured as tempted by the powers of the earth, of the air or of the heavens, with the offer of the best of everything; and replying that they want nothing. In the Greek cynic or stoic it really meant the mere negative; that he wanted nothing. In the Oriental mystic or fanatic, it sometimes meant a sort of positive negative; that he wanted Nothing; that Nothing was really what he wanted. Sometimes it expressed a noble independence, and the twin virtues of antiquity, the love of liberty and the hatred of luxury. Sometimes it only expressed a self-sufficiency that is the very opposite of sanctity. But even the stories of real saints, of this sort, do not quite cover the case of St. Thomas. He was not a person who wanted nothing; and he was a person who was enormously interested in everything. [emphasis added!] His answer is not so inevitable or simple as some may suppose. As compared with many other saints, and many other philosophers, he was 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. Nobody supposes that Thomas Aquinas, when offered by God his choice among all the gifts of God, would ask for a thousand pounds, or the Crown of Sicily, or a present of rare Greek wine. But he might have asked for things that he really wanted; and he was a man who could want things; as he wanted the lost manuscript of St. Chrysostom. He might have asked for the solution of an old difficulty; or the secret of a new science; or a flash of the inconceivable intuitive mind of the angels; or any one of a thousand things that would really have satisfied his broad and virile appetite for the very vastness and variety of the universe. The point is that for him, when the voice spoke from between the outstretched arms of the Crucified, those arms were truly opened wide, and opening most gloriously the gates of all the worlds; they were arms pointing to the east and to the west, to the ends of the earth and the very extremes of existence. They were truly spread out with a gesture of omnipotent generosity; the Creator himself offering Creation itself; with all its millionfold mystery of separate beings, and the triumphal chorus of the creatures. That is the blazing background of multitudinous Being that gives the particular strength, and even a sort of surprise, to the answer of St. Thomas, when he lifted at last his head and spoke with, and for, that almost blasphemous audacity which is one with the humility of his religion; "I will have Thyself."
Or, to add the crowning and crushing irony to this story, so uniquely Christian for those who can really understand it, there are some who feel that the audacity is softened by insisting that he said, "Only Thyself."
[GKC, St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:505-506]
PS: I am very sorry to have to add a postscript after such a Chestertonian cadence, but I feel I should refer you to my posting on New Year's: the poem by Francis Thompson called "New Year's Chimes" which I would like you to re-read. I think you will find it quite fitting and extremely Thomistic.


At 31 January, 2006 12:37, Blogger Newvictorian said...

Thank you, Dear Doctor, for that very educational post. If I were to give this site a subtitle, It would be "A Blogg of Substance!"


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