G. K. Chesterton thought Thomas Aquinas could levitate. (His 1932 essay in The Spectator is here.) Think of it as a metaphor for the Angelic Doctor’s stature among Catholics. He was so incredibly fat that when he sat around the University of Paris, he sat around the University of Paris. Yet he could rise up in the air and talk to the Virgin Mary.
Aquinas’ “Five Ways” to show God exists have inspired a cottage industry that’s still churning after 700 years. There’s St. Thomas “Five Ways” buttons (“Good for you. Good for America.”), seasonal humor (“The Five Ways of Proving Santa Claus Exists”) and instructional videos on the Tube of You. Not to mention at least 44 eponymous high schools and colleges in North America and Europe.
Which is all bonus, as we say in Latin. Aquinas was a teacher. I mean this literally: he had students. Even as a Dominican friar, he was on the faculty at the new universities at Paris and Naples, the Oxford and Harvard of the time. And in the prologue to the Summa Theologiae, he claims he’s writing “in such a way as may be consistent with the instruction of beginners.” (ST Prol.)
Beginners? Reading 4,000 pages of unrelenting, densely-argued Latin propositions, objections, assertions, rebuttals, quotations from authority and modifications? We’re thinking they must have made beginners smarter in the 13th century.
Yet he had no illusions about the brainwaves of the kids. At the end of one of his screeds, he wrote: “If anyone, puffing himself up with bogus knowledge, dares to argue against what I have written, let him not hold forth in corners or in the presence of the [students], who are incapable of judging such a difficult subject.” (“On the Unity of Intellect,” 1270)
Touchy, anyone? The “beginners” he refers to in his Prologue are not stupid undergraduates but other professors who — much like the time-challenged staff here at The God Project Dot Net — may lack Aquinas’ trenchant intellect.
But we conjugate onward. We referred a few weeks back to the Celebrity Pagan Philosopher Death Match (Plato vs. Aristotle). By 1250 a new fighter was sea-legging around in the ring: Faith. And some members of the Arts Faculty at Paris seemed willing to give a TKO to Aristotle. Aquinas’ legacy — his life’s mission — was to show that Faith in (the Christian) God was not contradicted by Aristotle in particular, or new information in general.
He was good for science. He gave generations of naturalists and physicists theological cover to experiment. He was good for Catholicism, leaving it a legacy of tolerance for new ideas (like — did we go there? — Evolution) that certain of our Protestant and Muslim brothers and sisters, well, lack.
(Before someone starts a pixellated Death Match of our own here, yes, I know about Pius IX and the infamous “Syllabus of Errors.” These things take time, amigos.)
To Aquinas, it was obvious that if there is a God, It created everything. Get it? Everything! Including natural phenomenon, the human mind, the ability to question, French idiot professeurs, philosophy, even contestants in the Pagan Death Match. “Since therefore grace does not destroy nature but perfects it,” he says, “natural reason should minister to faith ….”
For Reason to contradict Faith, he believed, made about as much sense as for my Moon to contradict Uranus. The source is all one, all God, which does not self-contradict. Truth is not a threat to truth. What a radical beginning.