Yesterday we quoted G.K. Chesterton on how the Catholic Church was under constant attack by the forces of unreason from both outside and inside the Church — and of the two, the more subtle (and thus more dangerous) was the attack from within. This makes sense, for it is almost impossible for an enemy to betray you, but friends can do it at any time.
|Argue fairly, or not at all.|
Talking about “attacks,” however, leads instantly to misunderstanding, although it can be said no other way. As is often the case, Chesterton probably put it best. As he explained when describing the method of St. Thomas Aquinas that he presented as the proper way to ward off such attacks, whatever their source,
[M]ost men must have a revealed religion, because they have not time to argue. No time, that is, to argue fairly. There is always time to argue unfairly; not least in a time like ours. Being himself resolved to argue, and to argue honestly, to answer everybody, to deal with everything, he produced enough books to sink a ship or stock a library; though he died in comparatively early middle age. Probably he could not have done it at all, if he had not been thinking even when he was not writing; but above all thinking combatively. . . . (Ibid., 126.)
When we think of an attack, we think of swords, guns, and battles, or at least angry, insulting words, and sneering.
There is that, of course, and more, especially the sneering at, the ridicule of, and contempt for others instead of refutation of the others’ bad — or (more often) good — ideas. Bad ideas, after all, are easily refuted with common sense . . . if one can get past the anger and hysteria with which bad ideas are so often defended. Good ideas, however, cannot be refuted, but only ridiculed, mocked, sneered at, or just ignored.
This, as Chesterton also pointed out, is because people today have forgotten how to argue. Instead, they leap immediately to personal attacks on someone’s faith, reason, clothing, imagined faults, or anything else that comes to hand . . . so long as it has nothing to do with the ideas that, being good, cannot really be refuted. As Chesterton continued his description of Aquinas’s method of refuting bad ideas (alluding to Tawney’s habit of sneering), after noting that “the Angelic Doctor” always thought “combatively” —
|Tawney: Not arrogant, just naturally superior to everything.|
. . . This, in his case, certainly did not mean bitterly or spitefully or uncharitably; but it did mean combatively. As a matter of fact, it is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer. That is why, in recent literature [e.g., Religion and the Rise of Capitalism — ed.], there has been so little argument and so much sneering.
We have noted that there are barely one or two occasions on which St. Thomas indulged in a denunciation. There is not a single occasion on which he indulged in a sneer. (Ibid.)
And how did Chesterton say that Aquinas argued — and what was the main point of the book? In rather heated language that suggests Chesterton was identifying with Aquinas in more than his girth, the “Apostle of Common Sense” let fly with some of his finest polemics . . . which, nevertheless, never lost the thread of rational argument.
Specifically, Aquinas’s opponent, the sophist Siger of Brabant, presented his theory on the nature of truth that to most people sounded exactly like what the Church really taught. To Chesterton, this was the quintessential example of the technique (keep in mind that Chesterton was showing how to argue, not giving the actual arguments) whereby the New Christian-socialists imposed their principle of subordinating everything, even the natural law, to the care for the poor, and sabotaged the true Church teaching that everything — even care for the poor — is subordinate to the natural law. As he related,
|Siger of Brabant: Truth is true except when it's not.|
Siger of Brabant said this: the Church must be right theologically, but she can be wrong scientifically. There are two truths; the truth of the supernatural world, and the truth of the natural world, which contradicts the supernatural world. While we are being naturalists, we can suppose that Christianity is all nonsense, but then, when we remember that we are Christians, we must admit that Christianity is true even if it is nonsense. In other words, Siger of Brabant split the human head in two, like the blow in an old legend of battle; and declared that a man has two minds, with one of which he must entirely believe and with the other may utterly disbelieve. To many this would at least seem like a parody of Thomism. As a fact, it was the assassination of Thomism. It was not two ways of finding the same truth, it was an untruthful way of pretending that there are two truths. (Ibid., 92-93.)
As Chesterton commented, “in the abyss of anarchy opened by Siger’s sophistry of the Double Mind of Man, he had seen the possibility of the perishing of all idea of religion, and even of all idea of truth.” (Ibid., 141.) This, of course, was the same thing Chesterton saw in his own day in the writings of Tawney and others — and accounts for his passion when he described the scene in which Aquinas refuted Siger’s argument:
|"Towering over the baying pack."|
So, in his last battle and for the first time, he fought as with a battle-axe. There is a ring in the words altogether beyond the almost impersonal patience he maintained in debate with so many enemies. “Behold our refutation of the error. It is not based on documents of faith, but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves. If then anyone there be who, boastfully taking pride in his supposed wisdom, wishes to challenge what we have written, let him not do it in some corner nor before children who are powerless to decide on such difficult matters. Let him reply openly if he dare. He shall find me there confronting him, and not only my negligible self, but many another whose study is truth. We shall do battle with his errors or bring a cure to his ignorance.” (Ibid., 94; cf. Aquinas, De Unitate Intellectus Contra Averroistas, § 124.)
As Chesterton continued, “The Dumb Ox is bellowing now; like one at bay and yet terrible and towering over all the baying pack.” (Ibid.) And why? Because his enemies had dared to contradict reason and betray him, and not only him, but truth itself with their lies and illogic.
|Shaw: Couldn't accept a religion or truth that made too much sense.|
Even then, however, Aquinas never descended to their level, though he “[fought] his enemies with a firebrand. And yet, even in this isolated apocalypse of anger, there is one phrase that may be commended for all time to men who are angry with much less cause. . . . it is that phrase about his own argument: ‘It is not based on documents of faith, but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves.’” (Ibid., 95.) As Chesterton explained,
If there is one phrase that stands before history as typical of Thomas Aquinas, it is that phrase about his own argument: “It is not based on documents of faith, but on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves.” Would that all Orthodox doctors in deliberation were as reasonable as Aquinas in anger! Would that all Christian apologists would remember that maxim; and write it up in large letters on the wall, before they nail any theses there. At the top of his fury, Thomas Aquinas understands, what so many defenders of orthodoxy will not understand. It is no good to tell an atheist that he is an atheist; or to charge a denier of immortality with the infamy of denying it; or to imagine that one can force an opponent to admit he is wrong, by proving that he is wrong on somebody else’s principles, but not on his own. After the great example of St. Thomas, the principle stands, or ought always to have stood established; that we must either not argue with a man at all, or we must argue on his grounds and not ours. We may do other things instead of arguing, according to our views of what actions are morally permissible; but if we argue we must argue “on the reasons and statements of the philosophers themselves.” (Ibid., 95-96.)