Lecture 67: St. Thomas Aquinas

Evelyn Waugh claimed that G.K. Chesterton never actually read the Summa Theologica. He simply ran his fingers over the binding and absorbed its content. It is certainly as good a legend as Dorothy Collins’ account of Chesterton dictating half the book of St. Thomas Aquinas to her, stopping, asking her to get some books (“What books?” “I don’t know”), her returning from London with a stack of books, him paging rapidly through one of them, taking a walk in his garden, entering his study and saying “Shall we do a little Tommy?” The journalist then proceeded to dictate the rest of the book that put all Thomistic scholars to shame. Etienne Gilson praised it as the best book ever written on St. Thomas Aquinas.

Chesterton begins by comparing Aquinas with St. Francis of Assisi. In spite of their obvious contrasts, he says, “they were really doing the same thing. One of them was doing it in the world of the mind, the other was doing it in the world of the worldly… They were doing the same great work; one in the study, the other in the street.” Neither of them brought anything new to Christianity. Rather, they brought Christianity closer to the kingdom of God. In the process, each of them “reaffirmed the Incarnation, by bringing God back to earth.”

St. Thomas was not only intent on upholding the reality of the Incarnation. He also wanted to show what were the implications of the Incarnation. Bringing heaven and earth together means bringing body and soul together. It means Man is to be studied in his whole Manhood. A man is not a man without his body, just as a man is not a man without his soul: “A corpse is not a man; but also a ghost is not a man.” St. Thomas thereby affirms the dogma that Modernism rejects: the Resurrection of the body.

Along with rejecting the body, the Moderns also reject the mind, that is, Free Will, or the Moral Responsibility of Man. Chesterton says, “Upon this sublime and perilous liberty hang heaven and hell, and all the mysterious drama of the soul.”

St. Thomas is the champion of God, The Creator. He affirms what Scripture says, that God created the physical world and all that is in it, and said that it was good. As a matter of fact, says Chesterton, the work of Heaven alone was material, that is, the making of the material world, and there was nothing evil about it. The work of Hell, on the other hand, was entirely spiritual. Hell doesn’t create anything. It only destroys.

The modern interpretation of history is that the middle ages were the “Dark” Ages, that there was a great philosophical break created by the Catholic Church, a break between the classical thinkers of Greece and Rome and the “Enlightenment” thinkers of the Reformation and the Renaissance. But Chesterton says that it was St. Thomas who reconnected with the ancient classical philosophers such as Aristotle and that the break in philosophical history came after St. Thomas. And since that time, says Chesterton, there has been nothing but a continued breakdown in philosophy.

Ironically, the key figure in history that has obscured our view of the giant St. Thomas Aquinas, is a stout little Augustinian monk from Germany. Martin Luther did not know what he began when he attacked Reason. Chesterton says, “It was the very life of the Thomist teaching that Reason can be trusted: it was the very life of Lutheran teaching that Reason is utterly untrustworthy.” When Martin Luther attacked reason, he led the way to the Epoch we now live in, the Epoch of Doubt, the Epoch of Personality, of Psychology, of Suggestion, of Advertisement.

Chesterton says that since the sixteenth century, nobody’s system of philosophy has really corresponded to everybody’s sense of reality. Each of them asks us to believe something that no normal man would believe: “that law is above right, or right is outside reason, or things are only as we think them, or everything is relative to a reality that is not there.” The modern philosopher claims, “like a sort of confidence man,” that if once we will grant him this, the rest will be easy, that if at one point we just sacrifice our sanity, everything else will make sense.

But the point is, none of the modern philosophies make any sense to the man on the street. Surprisingly, the philosophy that is closest to the mind of the man on the street is the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Firmly rooted in reality, fully respectful of human dignity, and, in every sense of the word, reasonable.

By being the champion of God the Creator against the heresy of the Manichees, who considered the physical world evil, St. Thomas was ultimately defending God’s most precious and mysterious creation: Life. Above all else, St. Thomas believed in life. And life is exactly what is doubted most in today’s Culture of Death. We are living the legacy of what Chesterton calls “the morbid Renaissance intellectual.” who says, “To be or not to be – that is the question.” But St. Thomas Aquinas, says Chesterton, replies in a voice of thunder, “To be – that is the answer!”

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