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on 11 January 2010
Gilson said that Chesterton's book on Aquinas was the best book on Aquinas and I can see why he says this. Chesterton captures the spirit of the Great Philosopher of common sense (following Aristotle) and perhaps Chesterton can do that because he himself was the apostle of common sense! But not only does he capture the spirit of Aquinas but he managed to move me deeply over the great saint whose work is a hymn in praise of creation. I was particularly taken by the description of Aquinas' death.
But the relevance today of Aquinas and Aristotle who stands behind him is the issue of whether we can trust our reason - Aristotle and Aquinas both shout out: "Yes, we can" but much of modernity philosophy is agnostic - simply refusing to see what is before us. Further, Aquinas is key to the dialogue which must always take place between faith and reason. We simply cannot have a faith which is contrary to reason - this precisely is the great message of Aquinas, which Chesteron wonderfully explains.
More than that, reason can lead us to God in whom we live and move and have our being. And going further, the senses can lead us to God because unlike the Platonists Aquinas teaches that "Everything that is in the intellect has been in the senses". Everything about which we think including our thoughts about God and the after life is saturated with the pictorial and non-pictorial life of the senses . But what does it mean to die and to be separated from our body until the end of time -what manner of sense less life can this be: Ah, that is a great mystery!
I will give some examples from the text to explain why Chesterton is so good:
"But I am not ashamed to say that I find my reason fed by my senses; that I owe a great deal of what I think to what I see and smell and taste and handle; and that so far as my reason is concerned, I feel obliged to treat all this reality as real".
"It was the very life of Thomist teaching that Reason can be trusted; it was the very life of the Lutheran teaching that Reason is utterly untrustworthy".
" a man is not a man without his body, just as he is not a man without his soul. A corpse is not a man; but also a ghost is not a man"
"St Thomas was making Christendom more Christian in making it more Aristotelian" (i.e. moving it away from the platonic tendencies established since Augustine and moving back towards rejoicing in the glory of creation)
"It is the fact that falsehood is never so false as when it is very nearly true".
"St Thomas was willing to allow the one truth to be approached by two paths, precisely because he was sure that there was only one truth. Because the faith was the one truth, nothing discovered in nature could ultimately contradict the Faith. Because the Faith was one truth, nothing really deduced from thre Faith could ultimately contradict the facts".
This is a key passage and we see that theme reflected in the writings of Benedict XVI in his latest encyclical, "Caritas in Veritate" when he says that faith should be purified by reason and reason should be purified by faith.
"Any extreme of Catholic asceticism is a wise, or unwise, precaution against the evil of the Fall; it is never a doubt about the good of Creation".
"If the morbid Renaissance intellectual is supposed to say: "To be or not to be - that is the question", then the massive medieval doctor does most certainly reply in a voice of thunder, "To be - that is the answer".
"The body was no longer what it was when Plato and Porphyry and the old mystics had left it for dead. It had hung unpon the 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."
"After the Incarnation had become the idea that is central to our civilisation, 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. When once Christ had risen, it was inevitable that Aristotle should rise again".
"St Thomas was not a person who wanted nothing and he was a person who was enormously interested in everything. As compared with many other saints, and many other philosophers, he was avid in his acceptance on Things; in his hunger and thirst for things".
Chesterton movingly describes the scene where the crucifix speaks to St Thomas and asks him what he asks of God:
"The stretched arms 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".
Chesterton beautifully recounts St Thomas end and the reading of the Songs of Solomon at his death bed and then:
"But there must have been a moment, when men knew that the thunderous mill of thought had stopped suddenly; and that after the shock of stillness that wheel would shake the world no more; that there was nothing now within that hollow house but a great hill of clay; and the confessor, who had been with him in the inner chamber, ran forth as if in fear , and whispered that his confession had been that of a child of five".
His legacy and thinking
"St Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs "
"Aquinas is almost always on the side of simplicity and supports the ordinary man's acceptance of ordinary truisms."
"The Thomist begins by being theoretical , but his theory turns our to be entirely practical."