AQUINAS AND THE DEFENSE OF ORDINARY THINGS
On “What Common Men Call Common Sense”
James V. Schall, S. J.
Professor, Department of Government, Georgetown University
The Annual Aquinas Lecture
Presented at the University of St. Thomas
Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada
January 28, 2004
AQUINAS AND THE DEFENSE OF ORDINARY THINGS
On “What Common Men Call Common Sense”
“Not only the practical politics, but the abstract philosophies of the modern world have had this queer twist. Since the modern world began in the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality; to what, if left to themselves, common men would call common sense.”
– G. K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas.1
“Omnes autem res humanae ordinantur in finem beatitudinis, quae est salus aeterna, ad quam homines admittuntur, vel etiam repeluntur, judico Christi, ut patet, Matth. xxv: 21.
– Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, III, 4.2
“I enjoyed the luxury of our approach to London, that metropolis which we both loved so much, for the high and varied intellectual pleasures which it furnishes. I experienced immediate happiness while whirled along with such a companion....”
– James Boswell, Thursday, March 28, 1776.3
In 1964, Étienne Gilson, at that time residing at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto, gave the Fenwick Lectures on the occasion of the 175th year since the founding of Georgetown University. These lectures were subsequently published under the title of The Spirit of Thomism. In the first discourse, Gilson remarked, perhaps sadly, perhaps frankly, that “not all good Christians love philosophy.”4 We think of Tertullian’s famous question “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Gilson himself mentioned, in this same category, Arnobius, Peter Damian, as well as the Abbé Lucien LaberthonniPre, who thought one had to choose “between being either a philosopher or a Christian.”5 Actually, Leo Strauss seems to hold a somewhat similar position, one must choose between the way of the philosopher and the way of the rabbi. Even St. Paul at times suspected not a little “foolishness” in philosophers.
One wing of Christianity, however, has devoted itself to saving philosophy, even from itself, while another has suspected that with Christianity, philosophy is in fact more itself, more philosophy, than it would be without it. This was surely the thesis of John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio. We might say of Thomas Aquinas that he was a theologian, and because he was a theologian, he was also a philosopher. Indeed, we might say that because he was a theologian, he was a better philosopher, and because he was a philosopher, he was a better theologian. Yea, more, we might even say that had he not been a theologian, he would not have found much interest in philosophy, and were he not a philosopher, he would not have seen much point to theology.
I trust that here in Fredericton, at a university named after St. Thomas, the good Christians do love philosophy and for its own sake, which is, as Aristotle implied, the only reason why we should love it. Or as Socrates put it in the seventh book of the Republic, “it is the nature of the real lover of learning to struggle toward what is, not to remain with any of the many things that are believed to be, that, as he moves on, he neither loses nor lessens his erotic love until he grasps the being of each nature itself...” (490b). Philosophy is indeed a thing to be loved, a thing about which to be excited.
In fact, I might be so brash as to hope that even the “bad” Christians, should there be such, which I must piously doubt in these noble halls, might also love philosophy. Intellectus quaerens fidem is, I suspect, as much a reality in “bad” philosophy as it is in “good” philosophy, perhaps more so. And when we know about revelation, I think, philosophy becomes something even more to be loved. Revelation is not the death-knell of philosophy but its re-awakening. It is philosophy that first properly poses the questions that it cannot satisfactorily answer for itself. It is also knows that it is philosophy that knows when its own answers are not adequate. Much of modern philosophy, I suspect, is an often desperate effort to “prove,” on the basis of what is said to be philosophy alone, that revelation cannot happen, cannot be true. The more we see of these philosophic proofs of revelation’s presumed “untruths,” the more disturbingly accurate revelation seems to be in its understanding of the actual human condition and its perennial tendencies.
The great Augustine, moreover, remarks, in the first chapter of the Nineteenth Book of the City of God, that “Nulla est homini causa philosophandi nisu ut beatus sit.” “There is no reason to philosophize except that we might be happy.” I am ever indebted to E. F. Schumacher’s dedication to his A Guide for the Perplexed, a wonderful book, for causing me to notice a sentence that I had often overlooked in reading De Civitate Dei.6 Few more profound words have ever been written.
Moreover, it is all right if a great man reminds us of another great man, if, say, Cicero reminds us of Plato, or Aquinas reminds us of Aristotle, or Boswell reminds us of Johnson, or Chesterton reminds us of Aquinas himself. We go to the trouble of thinking – it is in fact mostly a delight – because we want to know where we stand among existing things. We want to know that our personal destiny is not “in vain,” to use a famous phrase of Aristotle. We want to know that the things that are originate in gladness, not sadness. It is perhaps no accident that Scripture, in depicting the birth of children, speaks both of sadness and gladness, almost as if to say that our lot includes both, but in an order in which, in the end, the sadness is subsumed into gladness, if we choose to let it..
James Boswell told Samuel Johnson in a post-chaise on the way into London, in 1776, that “high and varied intellectual pleasures” are to be found in that glorious city. It is Aristotle who teaches us that all human activities have their proper pleasures, including those of the intellect, the neglect of which latter pleasures, the intellectual ones, usually turns us to disordered pleasures. Ironically, there is a this-worldly penalty for not enjoying the delights of the mind. Pleasure, rightly considered, is always a consequence of, or better reality within, doing what we ought. As Aristotle said, there are some things we would choose, even if they did not give us pleasure, like seeing, an observation that makes the pleasure and power of seeing even more mysterious.
Thomas Aquinas even suggests that literally all human things are ordered to a final beatitude which directly concerns ourselves, challenging us to accept or reject it, almost as if it is exceedingly important what we think, what we choose. The activities of our minds are not supernaturally indifferent. It makes a difference, what we think about the things that are. In the end, Aquinas adds, we do not judge ourselves, which suggests that there is a reality we do not make, but only receive. Indeed, it suggests that what we do not make is, in the end, more what we want than that which we choose to give ourselves from the depths of only ourselves. Ultimately, we are receivers.
Charles Taylor made the same observation as Aquinas. “The point of things isn’t exhausted by life, the fullness of life, even the goodness of life...,” Taylor observed at a lecture given at the University of Dayton in 1996. “What matters beyond life doesn’t matter just because it sustains life.... For Christians , God wills human flourishing, but ‘thy will be done’ doesn’t reduce to ‘let human beings flourish.’”7 The purpose of this life is not the eternal continuation of just this life. And Chesterton, that great admirer of Aquinas, was bold enough to speak of “everybody’s sense of reality,” as if it made obvious sense to say that we all live in the same world and know that we do.
Yet, intellectual things do not always allow us to be content with ordinary things. If we have but a breath of Plato in our souls, as we should, we know that no beautiful thing exhausts what it is to be beautiful in itself. Each beautiful thing, without denigrating its own being, its own what it is, is a reminder of what is luminously beautiful, even in what is ordinarily beautiful. Thus, it is precisely the ordinary that most often directs us to the extraordinary things and, paradoxically, it is the extraordinary things that are most needed to defend the ordinary, normal things. We underestimate God’s grandeur, I suspect, when we conceive it to be quite an easy thing to save us, knowing, if we be honest, what we are. Just why it is all right to be an ordinary human being is, if anything, more puzzling than why it is all right to be a perfect one. Why, after all, should there be anything at all but God? We suspect that Aquinas little caveat, “judicio Christi,” has something to do with it.
In a letter he wrote to a Thomistic congress in Rome in 2003, on Christian humanism, John Paul II, recalled, as did Chesterton back in 1933, how modern systems of philosophy do not allow us to see ordinary things. Between us and them there stands epistemological theories that obscure, if not totally darken, our vision of what is. And there are moral theories and practices that are perhaps even more blinding, more difficult barriers through which to see reality.
Modern man, the Pope said, seems to be “in search of his own fulfillment.” By this phrase, I take it, the pope means that modern man seeks to “define,” exclusively by himself, what it is to be human. He is subject to no “natural law,” even of himself. Then, recalling what he wrote in Fides et Ratio, John Paul II analyzed
the factors that are obstacles in the process of humanism. Among the most common should be mentioned the loss of faith in reason and its ability to arrive at the truth, the refusal of transcendence, nihilism, relativism, the forgetfulness of being, the denial of the soul, the prevalence of the irrational or feeling, the fear of the future and existential anxiety.... Christian humanism, as St. Thomas demonstrated, has an ability to preserve the meaning of man and his dignity.”8
We do not often enough, I think, consider the problem of precisely “intellectual obstacles,” of the notion that ideas themselves can and do prevent us from knowing the truth of things. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton remarks that “there is a thought that stops thought “9 We should have some sense that, often perhaps, we choose our ideas precisely so that we will not see a reality that would demand that we change our ways of living. How we think is not merely a frivolous exercise, like the four hundred and first crossword puzzle that we half-heartedly fill in because we have nothing else to do with our minds, or the television ads we watch because it is too much trouble to shut the whole thing off.
The Holy Father’s short list of intellectual obstacles here is quite interesting. The first one he stresses is a “loss of faith in reason.” “What does it mean to have ‘faith’ in reason?” we might ask ourselves. We like to think that faith and reason are rather separate, either one or the other. But we have here a man of incisive intellect speaking of a lack of “faith” in reason as itself an obstacle that might prevent us from knowing what humanism might be. A point comes when we must discover a ground, a first principle, that itself is too obvious to “prove” by something more clear than itself. Strictly speaking, this is not “faith,” except in the sense that we must take as a given, that is, what invariably functions within us the way it does.
Chesterton, again, made much the same observation in almost the same words about the intellect’s power over itself:
The point is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. ... One set of thinkers can prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought. It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.10
In practice, few who theoretically doubt whether the mind can know reality fail to open the door before trying to enter a room. Unlike Descartes, we do not normally think we have to prove the existence of God in order to know that something besides ourselves is out there in the world.
The word “humanism” itself needs to be further considered. The pope speaks of “Christian humanism,” knowing that not all humanism is “Christian.” Humanism has been considered, not infrequently in the modern world, to be implicitly “atheist humanism.” That is, to be human, it is said, we have to be atheistic. We are said to be “alienated” from our own being if we do not give ourselves the total content of what we are, if we do not, simultaneously, destroy what outside of ourselves is said to cause us to be what we are. This sort of “humanism” does not want to be dependent on any “theos,” any god, for an explanation of what man is. But to have “faith” in reason means precisely to affirm that reason contacts a world we did not create ourselves out of our own minds. The kind of being we are is already given to us. We are, in a sense, given to be what we already are. The drama of life is whether we accept or reject the kind of being we are given to be.
The pope also speaks of the “refusal of transcendence” and the “forgetfulness of being” as intellectual obstacles. Notice that he does not say the “intellectual rejection” of transcendence, but rather its “refusal,” even if, or especially if, there is intellectual proof for its existence. Charles Taylor, in the Dayton lecture, made the same point, “in Western modernity the obstacles to belief are primarily moral and spiritual, rather than epistemic.”11 Our theoretic problems are designed often to cover our moral problems.
And the pope speaks of the “forgetfulness” of being. This is a curious word. How can we “forget” what is in front of us at all times? I think of the first response found in Aquinas’ de Veritate, in which he says, simply, “illud autem quod primo intellectus concipit quasi notissimum, et in quo omnes conceptiones resolvit, est ens....” (de Veritate, I, 1).12 Something other than ourselves exists; it is most known to us. In its light, we also exist as the kind of knowing beings we are. To “forget” being means that we are so busy examining and explaining everything else in our own terms that we neglect what is in front of us, what is the most curious thing about us, what is most known to us, namely, that we are, rather than are not, that there are things that are not ourselves..
I am fond of citing a lecture that Eric Voegelin gave in Montreal in 1980. One of Voegelin’s missions in life was to “recall being,” if I might put it that way, to insist that we do not “forget” it but rather find its “ground.”. He spent his life urging us to get away from the constant going over ideas as if they were original sources and return to the experience of being on which they were founded. Those familiar with Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas already recognize this necessity as we saw in the brief citation from Aquinas about being. Voegelin remarked that there are “no new ideologies in the twentieth century,” only the working out of older ones. Ideologies – that is, explanations of the world that originate not in being but in mind – can last rather a long time if there is a vested interested in keeping them.
Voegelin then added that “the college teaching level is usually thirty, forty, or more years back of what is going on.”13 And is what is “going on,” even if we do not know it, that which decides our intellectual agenda? By no means. We need not be advocates of that vague “philosophy of the future” that Nietzsche spoke of in Beyond Good and Evil. Indeed, Voegelin himself admonished the students in Montreal in 1980, “Nobody is obliged to participate in the crisis of his time. He can do something else.”14 And what is this “something else” in which he can participate? Socrates said in the sixth book of the Republic, “Let’s agree that philosophic natures always love the sort of learning that makes clear to them some feature of the being that always is and does not wander around between coming to be and decaying” (485b). It is absolutely vital that we realize that the philosophic life is open to us even in the most corrupt of societies or universities. This is the grounding of Voegelin’s admonition that we are not “obliged” to participate in the crisis of our time; we are not prisoners of our time because we have something else, a philosophy of being, of what is. But we must find it, choose it.
The final sentence in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality is the following: “man would much rather will nothingness than not will.”15 Just what to will “nothingness” might mean is problematic. We recall that, in Christian theology, God creates the world ex nihilo, from nothing. This “from nothing” has never been understood, of course, to mean that the world is made of something called precisely “nothing.” But it does mean that of itself, apart from God’s being and will, nothing is except God Himself. Nietzsche’s urging us “to will” is contingent on the existence of a will that did not will itself to be what it is. Behind the “will to power” is a will whose power is given to it.
In the Protagoras, we find a passage of rare humor. It concerns the significance of our conversations about the things that are. Socrates has just given his analysis of the poems of Pittacus and Simonides on the difficulty of becoming and being good. The young sophist Hippias offers to read his own analysis of these very poems, but Alcibiades, ever cutting, brushes him off deftly, “Yes, Hippias, some other time, though.” (347b). “Don’t bother us,” in other words. Alcibiades, that most attractive and dangerous of all the potential philosophers Socrates ever encounters, wants Socrates directly to answer the questions posed by Protagoras. He wants philosophy, not speeches about philosophy.
At this point, Socrates wants to stop talking about poetry and odes. “Discussing poetry strikes me as no different from the second-rate drinking parties of the agora crowd,” Socrates bluntly remarks. He continues with a damning description of local intellectual life, a description valid for most all times: “These people largely uneducated and unable to entertain themselves over their wine by using their own voices to generate conversation, pay premium prices for flute-girls and rely on the extraneous voice of the red flute as background music for their parties.” (347c-d). Clearly, Socrates implies here that conversation should arise out of our own experience. – “philosophy exists in conversation,” as Frederick Wilhelmsen once made the same point. The artificial experience of the night-club with the latest music will not generate the deeper conversation to which we ought to turn our souls.
Then, in one of the finest descriptions of human conversation in all literature, Socrates continues:
But when well-educated gentlemen drink together, you will not see girls playing the flute or the lyre or dancing, but a group that knows how to get together without these childish frivolities, conversing civilly no matter how heavily they are drinking. Ours is such a group, if indeed it consists of men such as most of us claim to be, and it should require no extraneous voices, not even of poets, who cannot be questioned on what they say. When a poet is brought up in a discussion, almost everyone has a different opinion about what he means, and they wind up arguing about something they cannot finally decide. The best people avoid such discussions and rely on their own powers of speech to entertain themselves and test each other. These people should be our models. We should put the poets aside and converse directly with each other, testing the truth and our own ideas. (347d-e).
Socrates, be it noted, is not against drinking, nor is he opposed to singing or dancing, as we know from both the Laws and the Symposium. Indeed, these activities are in many ways our highest human expression of joy and gratitude before the things that are. They are our response to what is, that it is.
The burden of this passage from the Progagoras is one that teaches us where philosophy really exists, in conversation, in conversation generated by a desire to know the truth of things. The conversation is civil. It is friendly. It does not disdain drinking but it requires sobriety. Things need to be decided. We do not rely ultimately on outside books, whose understanding Socrates often tells us, as in the case of the poets, if itself fleeting. We argue from a reality we know and confront.. We should converse, seek the truth, even of our own ideas.
Christof Cardinal von Schönbrun once remarked in a lecture in Austria that Thomas Aquinas was the first, and perhaps only, man ever canonized simply for thinking, as if it made a difference both whether we thought and what we thought about. We live in a culture whose basic proposition is that truth is dangerous, discriminatory. This context makes Aquinas doubly dangerous. He not only held that truth can be affirmed but that we can make the judgment in which it exists. Our grounds for living with others cannot be based on the proposition that there is no truth. They should be rather that we see and hold the same truths.
Josef Pieper, in his marvelous little book, The Silence of Saint Thomas, remarked that we often overlook the fact that Aquinas was first a teacher and devoted considerable effort to teaching others precisely the truth. Though I think that they are not in opposition, when sorted out, we often praise Socrates for the honesty of knowing what or that he did not know, whereas in Aquinas there are something like ten thousand “articles,” brief one to four page units of argument, each of which concludes to the affirmation of what is true and further states on what basis the conclusion is reached. “To lead a man from error to truth, this he (Aquinas) considered the greatest service which one man can render another,” Pieper wrote. For those of us who are admonished also to give a cup of water or to clothe the naked, this passage deserves long meditation on the hierarchy of things to be done for our neighbor. It is not wrong to think that the men of our time need truth more than bread, to recall something in Dostoyevski.
Teaching, for Thomas, is something other and greater than to impart by one method or another the ‘findings of research’...,” Pieper continued. “Teaching is a process that goes on between living men. The teacher looks not only at the truth of things; at the same time he looks at the faces of living men who desire to know this truth.”16 This careful observation is, in a way, the same point we saw in the Protagoras, in which we needed to be in direct conversation, face to face. Teaching is a spiritual endeavor, both on the part of the student and the professor. Truth, as such, is not something that can be owned. If Schall has a truth that is peculiarly “his” own and no one else’s, it is not worth having. The highest things are free in their very truth. It is possible that a teacher can take a student to something, to a text, to a reflection, whereby the eyes of the student are open. He begins to see, not only see but long. Every experience of truth takes us out of ourselves.
If the human mind cannot reach reality, if there is no mind in things, if the only world that is, is the world that we project from within our wills, it follows, it would seem, that there is nothing we can receive. We are, in that case, the criterion and content of our own existence. Our modern “humanism” is not based on the gift of ourselves from whatever it is that causes to be, but it is the self-definition of our own world, in which is not from our own wills simply is not allowed to exist or be considered as part of our humanity..
An old Peanuts cartoon shows Schroder, the Beethoven lover, excitedly telling Lucy, after she asks, “this is a new recording of Brahms Fourth Symphony.” With a disbelieving look, Lucy wants to what he going to “do” with it. Schroeder tells her that he is going to “take it home and listen to it.” She cannot comprehend this contemplative sort of answer. She wants to know if he is going to dance or march to it. “No, I’m just going to sit and listen to it.” Lucy tries one more time, “you mean you’re going to whistle or sing while you listen to it?” For the fourth time, Schroeder tells her that he just going to “listen” to it. In the final scene, Lucy is standing alone gazing at the departed Schroeder. She concludes, “that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”17 Yet, Schroeder is right; we are essentially hearers and listeners before we are speakers and doers.
“There is no thinker who is so unmistakably thinking about things, and not being misled by the indirect influence of words, as St. Thomas Aquinas,” Chesterton wrote.
That strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness; or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange.... All ... the romance and glamor (of things), so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream.”18
The ordinariness and, at the same time the strangeness of the very same things, this is what Aquinas has to teach us about what is.
Yet, it is the lesson of the history of philosophy that once we exhaust what we can know about the cosmos, we eventually turn to the mystery that is ourselves. Socrates had it right: “It’s ridiculous, isn’t it, to strain every nerve to attain the utmost exactness and clarity about other things of little value and not to consider the most important things worthy of the greatest exactness?” (504d). In the older translations, Ignatius of Loyola used to provoke the precious, intelligent, and charming young Francis Xavier, at the University of Paris, with these plain words, unsettling to any college student, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose the life of his immortal soul?” Some modern translations have it, “what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his life?” If not losing our lives at any cost is our criterion, our principle, we are followers of Hobbes not of Christianity. There is something higher than the whole world. This is our tradition.
Let me conclude, in summary, with the following fifteen random propositions:
1) “Not all good Christians love philosophy” (Gilson). 2) ”The things of the greatest importance are worthy of the greatest exactitude” (Socrates). 3) “Since the beginning of the modern world, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded with everyone’s sense of reality” (Chesterton). 4) “Omnes autem res humanae ordinanter in finem beatitudinis, quae est salus aeterna” (Aquinas). 5) “I enjoyed the luxury of our approach to London, that metropolis which we both loved so much, for the varied and high intellectual pleasures which it furnishes” (Boswell).
6) “It is the nature of the real lover of learning to struggle for what is” (Socrates). 7) “The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision” (Chesterton). 8) “Nulla est homini causa philosophandi nisi ut beatus sit” (Augustine). 9) “The point of life isn’t exhausted by things, the fullness of life, even the goodness of life” (Charles Taylor). 10) “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose the life of his immortal soul?” (Ignatius).
11) “Man would much rather will nothingness than not to will” (Nietzsche). 12) “The teacher not only looks at the truth of things, at the same time he looks at the faces of living men who desire to know this truth” (Pieper). 13) Schroeder tells a frustrated Lucy that he is “going to take the new recording of Brahms Fourth Symphony home and listen to it” (Schulz). 14) “We should put the poets aside and converse directly with each other, testing the truth and our own ideas” (Socrates). 15) “There is no thinker who is so unmistakably thinking about things, and not being misled by the indirect influence of words, as Thomas Aquinas” (Chesterton).