Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Brightest Light of the Ages of Light

Today is the feast day (under the new calendar) of St. Thomas Aquinas. Chestertonians are glad for this, as we of course also celebrate the day he died, March 7, his traditional feast day. If you want a great introduction to him, you ought to read GKC's book. It's in CW2 along with his book on St. Francis and also The Everlasting Man - an incredible collection of important texts. I wanted to ask AMBER how many times GKC mentions our saint, but it's a bit hard. I know that he uses "Aquinas" almost 250 times, but he often uses the name "Thomas" when he means Aquinas, and it's a bit harder to tell without looking at each of over 600 places, some of which mean other people like "the Apostle" or "Becket" or "More" or "Carlyle" or "Cromwell" or "Jefferson" or "Hardy" or "Browne" or "Maundeville" or "Lipton" and so on. Lots of fun. (But if anyone wants the project, please let me know.)

But one of these uses by GKC of "Thomas" actually does mean Aquinas, and it is such an important bit that I will give it to you, since it comes in a book which is about another important man from the "Ages of Light"...
Now the Schoolman always had two ideas in his head; if they were only the Yes and No of his own proposition. The Schoolman was not only the schoolmaster but also the schoolboy; he examined himself; he cross-examined himself; he may be said to have heckled himself for hundreds of pages. Nobody can read St. Thomas's theology without hearing all the arguments against St. Thomas's theology. Therefore, even when that sort of faith produced what many would call ferocity, it always produced what I mean here by fairness; the almost involuntary intellectual fairness of one who cannot help knowing that the universe is a many-sided thing.
[GKC Chaucer CW18:367]
Who's the "Schoolman"? That means a "Scholastic" philosopher such as Aquinas. I happen to like that quote because it is so tech: "the Yes and No of his own proposition" - it's so binary! Sure it's in the Gospel (Mt 5:37) but it's also Boolean... as we computer scientists like to say, "Thank God for George Boole."

Yes, that's the equation for y = x(1-x), the foundation equation of all computing. (For more about why this graph is precisely fitting for today, and why it ought to be on your teeshirt, please see here for the amazing secret.

Ahem. (Please... it is a feast day, and so we are having a good time - aren't you?)

Oh, I see. You are confused about this "fairness" thing. Here's what you do: find a copy of the Summa Theologica by Aquinas and take a good look at it. You'll be surprised. As GKC tells us, you will find that about ONE HALF of it is arguments against God, the soul, the Church, the Faith, Jesus, the Sacraments, and so on. Oh, yes. All very carefully written, and with lots of references to back up those arguments, too - and fairly written, not ever sarcastic. Now of course when you read a little further, you will find there are also rebuttals, and very elegant hole-pokings where those arguments are torn to shreds. But this is the fairness that GKC is talking about: the careful and very intellectual fairness of Scholasticism, and of St. Thomas.

Why do I care about such things? Aren't you a computer scientist, who deals with real stuff? Yes, and that is precisely why I care. My friends at that cable place used to hear me quote this: "I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done." [GKC Heretics CW1:46] And that was the century when Aquinas lived. For more, like about this thing of reality and of getting things done you'll have to read GKC's book on Aquinas. He's the most practical of philosophers, and GKC even implies we ought to think of him as an engineer... VERY high tech, yes indeed!

But, you say, back then they used to sit around and argue about stupid and unimportant things. Ah, GKC answered this too, and I shall conclude with his mvery Thomistic answer:
In the good old days of Victorian rationalism it used to be the conventional habit to scoff at St. Thomas Aquinas and the mediaeval theologians; and especially to repeat perpetually a well-worn joke about the man who discussed how many angels could dance on the point of a needle. The comfortable and commercial Victorians, with their money and merchandise, might well have felt a sharper end of the same needle, even if it was the other end of it. It would have been good for their souls to have looked for that needle, not in the haystack of mediaeval metaphysics, but in the neat needle-case of their own favourite pocket Bible. It would have been better for them to meditate, not on how many angels could go on the point of a needle, but on how many camels could go through the eye of it. But there is another comment on this curious joke or catchword, which is more relevant to our purpose here. If the mediaeval mystic ever did argue about angels standing on a needle, at least he did not argue as if the object of angels was to stand on a needle; as if God had created all the Angels and Archangels, all the Thrones, Virtues, Powers and Principalities, solely in order that there might be something to clothe and decorate the unseemly nakedness of the point of a needle. But that is the way that modern rationalists reason. The mediaeval mystic would not even have said that a needle exists to be a standing-ground for angels. The mediaeval mystic would have been the first to say that a needle exists to make clothes for men. For mediaeval mystics, in their dim transcendental way, were much interested in the real reasons for things and the distinction between the means and the end. They wanted to know what a thing was really for, and what was the dependence of one idea on another. And they might even have suggested, what so many journalists seem to forget, the paradoxical possibility that Tennis was made for Man and not Man for Tennis.
[GKC The Thing CW3:167-8]
Superb! Likewise, computers, cable TV, the INTERNET, cellphones were made for Man, and not Man for them, you know. Ah yes. Perhaps one of these days someone will want to know what software really is for. In which case I suggest you look for a Thomistic computer scientist. There's more than one of us out here.


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