Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Woodward: The Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

G. K. Chesterton's book on St. Thomas may not be the very best treatment of the subject. (Then again, it may be.) In any case, Chesterton does one thing better than anybody else who has ever written about the Angelic Doctor -- he places Thomism solidly and intelligibly in the context of Western philosophy as a whole, and illustrates the perennial relevance of Thomistic approaches to virtually all the big philosophical questions. Here, for example, is Chesterton explaining how St. Thomas answered that great epistemological riddle of Philosophy 101 -- how do we know that anything we perceive is real?

When a child looks out of the nursery window and sees anything, say the green lawn of the garden, what does he actually know; or does he know anything? There are all sorts of nursery games of negative philosophy played round this question. A brilliant Victorian scientist delighted in declaring that the child does not see any grass at all; but only a sort of green mist reflected in a tiny mirror of the human eye. This piece of rationalism has always struck me as almost insanely irrational. If he is not sure of the existence of the grass, which he sees through the glass of a window, how on earth can he be sure of the existence of the retina, which he sees through the glass of a microscope? If sight deceives, why can it not go on deceiving? Men of another school answer that grass is a mere green impression on the mind; and that the child can be sure of nothing except the mind. They declare that he can only be conscious of his own consciousness; which happens to be the one thing that we know the child is not conscious of at all. In that sense, it would be far truer to say that there is grass and no child, than to say that there is a conscious child but no grass. St. Thomas Aquinas, suddenly intervening in this nursery quarrel, says emphatically that the child is aware of Ens. Long before he knows that grass is grass, or self is self, he knows that something is something. Perhaps it would be best to say very emphatically (with a blow on the table), "There is an Is." That is as much monkish credulity as St. Thomas asks of us at the start. Very few unbelievers start by asking us to believe so little. And yet, upon this sharp pin-point of reality, he rears by long logical processes that have never really been successfully overthrown, the whole cosmic system of Christendom.

Sometimes, when reading St. Thomas Aquinas, it's possible to get the impression that "the whole cosmic system of Christendom" was just barely a big enough topic to engage his mind.

O God, the wondrous learning of your blessed confessor Thomas enlightened your Church and still makes her fruitful because of his holy efforts. Grant that we may understand his teachings and put them into practice.

St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us.