Saturday, September 19, 2020

Saint Thomas Aquinas by GK Chesterton

 Last year I read a book of Chesterton’s essays and I remembered why I had liked him so well years ago, and saw how I had come to disagree with well over half of what he said. Including this one, I’ve read six or so of his books, but Orthodoxy, discovered while I was in college, was incredibly influential on my back during my Christian days. I doubt I’m exaggerating if I say I’ve read it 10 times, though half of those were before I kept a reading log so I can’t say for sure. It’s an explanation of why he is a Catholic and has some of the funniest, most paradoxical and nearly magical writing about faith I’ve read. Despite my subsequent apostasy, his voice is imprinted on my brain. No one turns a phrase quite like he does. When I read some of his essays last year that voice was on full display, and I understood a little better what he meant when he openly claimed to be a medievalist (in the sense of sharing the outlook of medieval Christianity, not being one who studies it). He actually thought that medieval Christian philosophy was right and used insights from it in his quarrel with modernity, the specifics of which quarrel I heartily disagree with while really enjoying his rhetorical force and wit. This short biography of Aquinas, in addition to being an enjoyable reading experience and informative for someone who is unfamiliar with the subject, really lays out Chesterton’s reasons for claiming medievalism.

Chesterton begins by contrasting Aquinas both physically and philosophically with St. Francis, a subject of a similar earlier book. Ultimately he argues that for all their seeming difference, they were both devout Catholics and despite their different approaches were essentially after the same thing. He then narrates the life of Aquinas, which was eventful and, in Chesterton’s telling, compelling. As he explicates at a popular (as in not academic) level Aquinas’s philosophy, he argues that the “dark” ages, or rather the years of Aquinas’s life, were, in fact, the high point of Christian philosophy. He argues that rather than making Christianity Aristotelian, as is commonly supposed, he Christianized Aristotle.

While this is the clearest statement I’ve read so far of Chesterton’s reasons for being a medievalist, I am still not convinced by his argument. That said, it does give him some good insights. From the viewpoint of the present it is easy to see the past as a monolith which it clearly was not: "It is not at all easy for us to feel that distant events were thus disconcerting and even disreputable. Revolutions turn into institutions; revolts that renew the youth of old societies in their turn grow old; and the past, which was full of new things, of splits and innovations and insurrections, seems to us a single texture of tradition." From this perspective it becomes hard to argue that history is a single progression forward towards a unified goal. While I suspect that Chesterton would disagree, this is why fighting for what we call progressive values is important; they are by no means inevitable. History is a welter of contradicting urges and motivations. It’s tempting to see ourselves as the pinnacle of societal development rather than just another point along the way, but that is wrong thinking. While I wouldn’t share Chesterton’s assessment of current events, either in his day or projecting forward what he would likely think of ours, his perspective from medieval times does a very good job of undercutting a cocksure sense of our own day as the end of history. 

All in all a good narrative of Aquinas’s life that doesn’t delve too deeply into his theology and does a good job (to my untrained eyes) of introducing and contextualizing his philosophical thought.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 75/75

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