Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Three Key Books on Common Sense, XI: “The Awful Apparition of Aristotle”


One of the things that strikes the reader of what is perhaps G.K. Chesterton’s greatest book, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”, is the fact that so little of it is actually about Aquinas.  A rough estimate reveals that barely a quarter of the text deals with Aquinas himself — and even that seems to focus more on other people in Aquinas’s life or who are important for understanding the contemporary situation.  Practically none of it deals with theology.

Manichean Dualism: the Double Mind of Man
The heart of Chesterton’s book on the Dumb Ox of Sicily is the third and fourth chapters, “The Aristotelian Revolution” and “A Meditation on the Manichees.”  It is there we realize that the book is a multilayered paradox, an astounding feat for a writer and thinker as clear and as straightforward as Chesterton, who usually satisfied himself with pointing out the paradoxes, even contradictions, of others or of the world around us.

The first paradox is that, as noted, it becomes apparent that the book isn’t really about Aquinas as the title would suggest.  Instead, it is about the thought of Aquinas.  As Chesterton stated in his “Introductory Note”: “I can hardly say much of the philosopher, beyond showing that he had a philosophy.  I have only, so to speak, given samples of that philosophy.”  (Chesterton, The Dumb Ox, op. cit., 12.)

The Primacy of the Intellect, not the Will
The second paradox is that it dawns rather quickly on the reader that the book isn’t about the whole thought of Aquinas.  Instead, it is about a single point, the “samples” of which Chesterton spoke, which, nevertheless, get to the essence of Aquinas’s thought: the primacy of the intellect, of knowledge over opinion, of reason as the basis for true faith, and the integrity of the first principle of reason.  This is an astounding feat, for as Chesterton himself noted of Aquinas, “[H]e produced books enough to sink a ship or stock a library.” (Ibid., 126)

Expressed “negatively,” the first principle of reason is the law or principle of contradiction: that nothing can both “be” and “not be” at the same time under the same conditions.  Expressed “positively,” this is the law or principle of identity: that which is true is as true, and is true in the same way, as everything else that is true.

Denial of this first principle of reason is rooted in the idea that the natural law either does not exist, or is based on something other than human nature itself.  As Mortimer Adler summarized this error in his book, Ten Philosophical Mistakes,

Adler: denial of human nature an error.
“The eighth mistake consists in the astounding, yet in our day widely prevalent, denial of human nature.  It goes to the extreme of asserting that nothing common to all human beings underlies the different behavioral tendencies and characteristics we find in the subgroups of the human race.” (Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes, op. cit., xviii-xix.)

Or, as John Paul II said in Fides et Ratio (keeping in mind that the natural law based on God’s Nature self-realized in His Intellect and reflected in human nature is therefore discernible by reason alone), “the legitimate distinction between the two forms of learning became more and more a fateful separation. . . . [One] of the many consequences of this separation was an ever-deeper mistrust with regard to reason itself.”

We then come across a third paradox, that the book is more about the modern world’s rejection of the thought of Aquinas than about the thought of Aquinas.  About this time we also realize that perhaps the most paradoxical thing of all about the book is that it can be about so many things at once, and yet not contradict itself on any significant point.

Understanding this third paradox is key to understanding what Chesterton was doing.  In every case where he described the opponents of Aquinas, there is a clear parallel with today’s situation.  We see this in the conflict Aquinas had with the Medieval equivalents of the Traditionalists and the Modernists, and with the basic philosophies that manifest as socialism and theosophy in the modern world.

Aristotle incognito, after being rediscovered.
As Chesterton related, the “rediscovery” of Aristotle caused an intellectual firestorm in Europe.  Based on some very twisted translations of Aristotle’s works (paralleled today by a number of innovative interpretations of Chesterton’s works), those whom we would today call “Traditionalists” (and Chesterton called social conservatives) — those who saw anything but doing the old things in the old ways as a danger to orthodoxy and social stability — were up in arms.

First, of course, the translations came from Islamic sources.  That was suspicious in and of itself.  Then there was the fact that (at least in a certain way and of certain types of Muslims) a Muslim who became a good Aristotelian became a bad Muslim — the work of Ibn Khaldûn, the great Islamic philosopher who reconciled Mohammed and Aristotle was still in the future.  Islam was, at that point, very much a will-based faith, at least in its popular aspects, something strongly in evidence today among extremist sects.  As Chesterton somewhat simplistically put it,

“[W]e may say broadly of the Moslem philosophers, that those who became good philosophers became bad Moslems.  It is not altogether unnatural that many bishops and doctors feared that the Thomists might become good philosophers and bad Christians.  But there were also many, of the strict school of Plato and Augustine, who stoutly denied that they were even good philosophers.  Between these two rather incongruous passions, the love of Plato and the fear of Mahomet, there was a moment when the prospects of any Aristotelian culture in Christendom looked very dark indeed.” (Chesterton, The Dumb Ox, op. cit., 85.)

Dominic de Guzmán the Rationalist
Then there was the fact that the new Orders, the Franciscans (the mystics) and the Dominicans (the rationalists), were suspicious in and of themselves.  Their respective approaches to truth seemed contradictory to people unwilling to base their mystical faith on rational reason, or reconcile reason with faith.  How (they seemed to say) could both faith and reason be right?  Yet, as Chesterton described the situation,

“The Mystic is right in saying that the relation of God and Man is essentially a love-story; the pattern and type of all love-stories.  The Dominican rationalist is equally right in saying that the intellect is at home in the topmost heavens and that the appetite for truth may outlast and devour all the duller appetites of man.”  (Ibid., 74.)

Worse, due almost certainly to the wild distortions of the Fraticelli, the Franciscans and Dominicans were seen as overthrowing the proper order of society.  As Chesterton described the situation,

“[S]ome men had a very vivid feeling that everything was breaking up; and that all the recent experiments or excesses were part of the same social dissolution; and there were two things that such men regarded as signs of ruin; one was the awful apparition of Aristotle out of the East, a sort of Greek god supported by Arabian worshippers; and the other was the new freedom of the Friars.  It was the opening of the monastery and the scattering of the monks to wander over the world.  The general feeling that they wandered like sparks from a furnace hitherto contained; the furnace of the abnormal love of God: the sense that they would utterly unbalance the common people with the counsels of perfection; that they would drift into being demagogues.” (Ibid., 74.)

Knox: an excess of charity threatens unity.
As Ronald Knox put it later, to the social conservatives, the Friars were examples of what he called “enthusiasm” or “ultrasupernaturalism”: an excess of charity that threatens unity.  The fact that the Fraticelli and other renegades were precisely that and everything the social conservatives feared (largely through their attacks on private property and liberty/free association/contract) only made matters worse, as Chesterton had explained in St. Francis of Assisi.

Nevertheless, as history proved, Aquinas successfully defended both Aristotle and the Friars against the hysteria of the social conservatives — as reported by Chesterton, bearing a suspicious resemblance to the way that he and Belloc defended distributism and Catholicism against the capitalist and Anglican establishment of the early twentieth century.  No sooner had Aquinas succeeded in this, however, then another, far greater threat appeared, those whom Chesterton referred to as Manichees, and which we have no difficulty in recognizing as Modernists (“Moderns”) who have surrendered to New Age reinvented religion and socialist economic and political theory, which Chesterton epitomized as astrology and Communism.

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