I was excited to snorkle through
G. K. Chesterton’s Saint Thomas Aquinas: ‘The Dumb Ox’, published in 1933, because it was so highly praised by the famous French Thomist Etienne Gilson (“Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement”), whose The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas has been sitting on my shelf judging me for months. So you can imagine my disappointment when it turned out to be, as usual, more about Chesterton than Aquinas.
G. K. Chesterton was the Christopher Hitchens of his day, holding down an essentially English job that’s all but disappeared: popular ironist. He thrived in the world between the wars and between Oxford and Cambridge, trading wit and wisdom with Shaw and C. S. Lewis, H. G. Wells and J.R.R. Tolkien, churning out brisk biographies, essays, political tracts, popular detective and spy novels and short stories, and for all I know sonnets and limericks. Eminently quotable, he was also very much a character: short, bespectacled, irascible, unkempt, sarcastic.
Today he’s best-known in America for his unapologetic Catholic apologetics, including Orthodoxy. Publishers Weekly recently claimed he was enjoying something of a revival, with new biographies, collections of quotations, and reprints of his ironic spy fiction classics The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill. And there’s a seemingly active Chesterton community in the U.S., complete with newsletter, podcasts and meet-ups.
Saint Thomas Aquinas: ‘The Dumb Ox’ betrays all Chesterton’s usual contradictions: his prose style is elegant but plain; he writes long, tortuous sentences held up by semi-colons and commas like handrails on a spiral staircase; sentences that are, somehow, easy to follow. And he’s witty in the way of Victorians: epigrammatic, paradoxical and utterly ironic.
- “In that age men disagreed even about war, and peace might break out anywhere”
- “The Protestant theology of Martin Luther was a thing that no modern Protestant would be seen dead in a field with”
- “He, being a trained philosopher, is naturally trained to put up with philosophers”
Personally, I find him annoying. Even his spy novels don’t stick to the point. Good writing is supposed to be like conversation, but with Chesterton it’s way too much like conversation. His non-fiction spends yards of prose settling scores with people he doesn’t name, waging long-forgotten turf battles with people we don’t know.
Illustrations are as likely to come from something he read in the Times last week as the Church Fathers. Quotation is rare; the voice he likes most to hear, clearly, is his own. Reading Chesterton can feel like following a guy through an art museum and praying he’s not lost.
And as a provider of information — as opposed to cleverness — he’s very thin soup. There is no biographical data in the whole of Thomas Aquinas that couldn’t be culled from a glance through an encyclopedia. And there’s no exposition of Aquinas’ philosophy that goes much beyond the first Book of the Summa Theologiae.
Yet for all that, it’s a good book. He’s weaving a spell that relies on an accumulation of elements, each in its place, in order to work; and, like hypnosis, you’re not sure when it’s over that anything happened at all.
Tomorrow: I’ll finally get to the book itself, and the One Incredible Thing It Reveals About God! Pray I stick to the point . . .