THE WISE MAN’S BOOK
The wise man and his book
It is not hard to admire St. Thomas Aquinas immovably caught in the splendor of a stained-glass window; it is easy to pay tribute to his Summa Theologica as long as it remains high on a book-shelf giving tone to a library. Under these circumstances, we of the twentieth century can read about them both, talk about them enthusiastically, but pretty much leave them both alone. To have Thomas walking among us, his book open on our desks for serious study — that is something else again.
Objections to Thomas
If Thomas were to drop into a twentieth century club, or a twentieth century pub for that matter, he would, of course, be judged by twentieth century standards. By those standards he could expect no rousing welcome; he might be tolerated in an amused fashion, but certainly no one would get chummy with him. He lived in the wrong place, for his home was a cloister and to us a cloister is much more puzzling than a healthy appendix. He lived in the wrong age, long, long before the modern age of progress, in the very middle of the Middle Ages. His occupation was totally without interest to us. He was a professor and a writer of books: his researches uncovered no new vitamins or explosives, he had nothing to say about earning more pay, he neither attacked God nor debunked man and society, but he had a good deal to say about truth, goodness, love and God; his books had no scarlet pages, no profanity, no biological realism in perfumed words, no substitute for thinking, and no escape from life. Far from rejecting the past, the man actually revered old things!
Personally he was impossible. His family was closely tied by bonds of blood to the royalty of all Europe, bad enough in itself; but Thomas, turning aside from the soldierly preoccupations of his brothers, became (though not without a fight) a begging friar. To get the full force of this last on the modern mind, it must be put cumulatively: he was a friar and a beggar. The man himself was an abstract thinker, a cold, ruthless logician proceeding with machine-like precision and heartlessness from principle to conclusion regardless of consequences. He had no passion in him, for he was a saint; no heart, for he clung stubbornly to truth; no imagination, for he was a metaphysician; no humanity, for he fled from the world.
If a particle of this were true of Thomas, he would certainly have no place in the lives of men of our age; if even less of it were true, he would belong, not in a stained-glass window, but in a museum. There are no people farther apart than saints and freaks; and this picture makes Thomas out a gigantic freak.
A Picture of Thomas
This picture of Thomas is worse than a caricature, it is a calumny of the man. There is no gainsaying the fact that Thomas was a friar; the best defense of that calling was not the one he wrote but the one he lived. It is not at all the same thing to fly from the world and to fly from men: those who fly from men will die from the spiritual anemia induced by the feeble diet and the narrow confines of the cell of self; while those who stand by men, though flying from the world, will be crucified by both–and consider the crucifixion a price well worth the paying. Thomas has had his crucifixion down through the ages; perhaps the most bitter is the modern one of complete misunderstanding of his character.
We come close to the truth when we see Thomas as an eager youngster plunging into the pursuit of truth at the heels of the greatest master of his time. We are digging beneath his inscrutable surface when we see him holding on to that youthful zest in the way peculiar to thc saints, supplementing native genius by labors even his great strength could not stand until, before fifty, his life was burned out. Throughout that short life he dreamed great dreams, impossible dreams, and did all a man could do to make those dreams come true; coming to the end of his life he was forced to admit, as we all are, that the accomplishment fell far short of his dreams, that all he had written seemed as so much straw.
Thomas was eminently human. He had a great natural capacity for love. Bonaventure could have testified to this; or the sisters of Thomas who went into his tower room to talk him out of the convent and came out themselves talked into the convent. He had a knowledge of human nature acquired in no little degree in his trudgings up and down, back and forth, in a Europe which knew little delicacy in its revelations of human nature. That knowledge was deepened, enriched by a love of God and a zeal for souls that made his every breath, even his dying one, a wind scattering truth broadcast through a hungry world which eventually would reap the harvest of so prodigal a sowing.
He had indeed fled from the world, but not from men. This man was not without passion, he was on fire; his heart was not empty, it was overflowing; he was a metaphysician in the fullest sense of the word, which means he was a poet and a pioneer with imagination enough and courage enough to step into the dark over the edge of the world. This man doesn’t belong in a museum; he doesn’t belong in a stained-glass window; his place is with the daring ones, at the head of the crowd, with the ones who have the courage to be men.
Objections: 700 Years Old
Still, his supreme book is seven hundred years old. It might, you say, be of historical interest; a collector, whom the rules do not oblige to read the books he cherishes, might be enthused about it. But the world has come a long way in seven hundred years. Thomas was not a prophet; what could he know of our intellectual advancement. Every age has its own problems; what did Thomas have to do with democracy as against dictatorship, with doles, planned economy, or mechanized war? His book was medieval; our age certainly is not. His was an age of speculation, ours of observation; his of approximation, ours of accuracy; his of faith, ours of reason; his a leisurely age, ours one of speed. So we might go on, fondling the contrasts that are only half-true and omitting the essential consideration, namely, that seven hundred years has not changed the model of human nature.
A list of the problems dealt with in the Summa might as easily have been drawn from the schools of Greece, the libraries of modern universities, or, indeed, from the hearts and minds of men of any age. There is, for example, the problem of good and evil; of being and becoming; of change or evolution; of the goal of man; of knowledge; of God; of property; of the state; of pleasure; of duty; of the origin of the world, and so on. If the Summa of St. Thomas has anything worth while to say on these subjects, it is of interest to an age tortured as ours is with the lack of answers to the fundamental problems of humanity. As a matter of fact, St. Thomas was much too human to turn out a work useless to humanity, much too close to the hearts of men and women to have dealt with these problems in an abstract way that would be of interest only to the academic mind.
The book is ponderous, five folio volumes of closely packed print, and more closely packed thought. We are not of that by-gone age that would accept such a formidable work as an intellectual challenge, to prove it was not as inferior as it felt. We are rather of the age of headlines, compendiums, outlines and summaries. We must have reviews of the week, in pictures for the really rushed; summary magazines do our digesting for us, columnists do our peeking for us, commissions do our fact finding. For ourselves, we are always in a hurry.
Yet, a three volume novel is not too much for us, or even a one volume romance of twelve-hundred pages. We do face pages and pages of reports, platforms, speeches, statistics. We are of the age of heroically persevering scientific research. It cannot be that we are afraid of work. It is more likely that we demand some tangible fruits as the goal inspiring us to the expenditure of so much mental or physical labor. And it would be hard to quarrel with this eminently hard-headed attitude towards life or books. St. Thomas meets such a challenge with his usual overwhelming answer. It is not the age of his work, its ponderous size, even its medieval dress that repels the layman; but the unfounded opinion that this work is not worth the labor involved in becoming acquainted with it, the results of that labor are not pertinent to an age startlingly different from the age in which the Summa Theologica was written.
Objections: Dead Languages
The dress of the book has been changed; live languages have wrapped their attractive folds about it. Not that such a change was so very necessary; it is difficult to hide the beauty of youth behind the thin disguise of outmoded style. Only a superficial observer could have missed the allure of the Summa. It was written with enthusiasm for the enthusiastic, for the beginners who face light-heartedly the agony of the first step. There is about the book much of the eagerness of youth. It attacks the highest problems with a gay heart and sublime confidence; it meets the rebuff of mystery with youth’s resiliency; it accepts the sweeping conclusions of truth with youth’s idealism, youth’s willingness to sacrifice. It aims at high goals with all the vigor of the great heart of youth.
The Nature of the Book
The humanity and perennial modernity of the Summa are the skeleton whose flesh and blood is the culture of all the ages. Within this book is the compressed essence of truth ground from the Oriental and Greek philosophies, from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, from the Fathers and from those long thousand years that went into the making of scholasticism. Yet it is not a mere compendium of past achievement, a mausoleum of masters long since dead; rather it is the descendant of a noble line, worthy of the blood it bears. The hard won truth of man’s earliest search for wisdom passed through a filter in Aquinas that barred nothing but the dregs which would poison the drink.
The Book is Wise
Perhaps this last is one of the supreme benefits of contact with the Summa Theologica — the constant communication with one of the greatest minds of all time through the medium of his greatest work. The contents of the Summa had been preparing in the retort of a giant intellect through all of a lifetime. We can even see the slow steps of purification by glancing at Thomas’ earlier works seeing the hesitating agreement, or carefully conditioned disagreement, with the thought of his masters. Later the bold statement of his own solutions does not balk at disagreement with the older scholastics, with Albert, Bonaventure, Augustine and the Fathers, with Plato and Aristotle. Agreements, wherever found, are even more startling. Here, in the full fruit of great genius, there is an economy of word and concept that is deceiving: a few lines of the Summa often equal pages of an earlier work and yet leave us puzzled as to what has been omitted. Frequently the marvel is not what has been so well said but what has been so well left unsaid. A principle is presented to us bowing down with human implications, but presented delicately, with a profound respect for the intellect of the reader, like a poem barely suggesting a sublime picture, or an early English drama without scenery. When a word either way might have upset the delicate balance of truth, might indicate an unjustified emphasis, might mislead the reader, that word is not said.
Its Personal Nature
St. Thomas sat down to write his greatest book as a typist might pull the cover off her typewriter and begin the transcribing of her notes. He, too, was unabashed by the task before him; he approached it with serene simplicity, unimpressed with the importance of his work. But his serenity and simplicity were the eternal expression of the confidence inspired by genius and sanctity. He admits, off-handedly in his extremely brief Prologue, that he intends to expose all that pertains to the Christian religion. ln view of what he actually did, that meant that he intended to wander the corridors of eternity; and to neglect no item in the existing universe. His gaze would focus on the crystalline beauty of the angelic world; his step would not falter before the mysterious realms of the human heart; nor would he be confused by the pettiness and magnificence of the mind of man. He would make a thorough investigation of the animal as well as of the angelic side of the human image of God. The origin, end and make-up of the physical world he would treat as profoundly as the birth, life, death and resurrection of God made man. The mystery and misery of sin were to be well within his field; and, of course, thc supernatural instrumentality of the sacraments, the riches of the whole life of grace.
The Aim of the Book
Thomas, faced with the abundance of his material, did not hope merely to toss it before the minds of men; he expected to expose all this adequately, lucidly, and as briefly as the matter permitted. Moreover, he was not aiming at an increase in the intellectual jowls of the well cared for specialists in philosophy and theology; he had in mind, rather, the underfed, the starving, the little ones, beginners who had gone hungry too long. He expected to avoid all that would confuse the thinking of these little ones, that would impede their progress, that might contribute to their discouragement. The thing seemed important enough to this first professor of the age of Universities for an explicit statement of the instruments he had forged to bring it about: order above all, simplicity, and the ruthless elimination of useless questions, arguments and repetitions.
The Division of the Book
The laziest man in the world might draw up a plan such as this. In fact, lazy men are usually prolific in their production of plans, perhaps the better to relish their idleness. The astonishing thing about Thomas’ project is that it came very close indeed to complete accomplishment, so close as to leave the onlookers breathless before the massive beauty of this intellectual cathedral, oblivious of its unfinished sacristy. Thomas’ project was stopped by the only thing that could stop it. He died while in the midst of his treatment of the sacrament of Penance.
The plan of the Summa is as simple as the statement of its aims by Thomas. The first part treats of God, both in Himself and as the principle from which the angelic, the human and the purely physical world take their rise; the second part treats of man’s movement back to the source from which he came; the third, of the means or the road which he travels to that goal and the home that waits for him at the end of the road.
It is the first part of the Summa which will occupy us throughout this volume. After a preliminary question (the burden of the rest of this chapter) we shall investigate the existence of the one God; then the inner life of the one true God, or the mystery of the Trinity; the rest of this volume will be taken up with a study of the angels, of men and of the world, for thus only can we have the full story of the procession of creatures from God. This latter part of the present volume will not involve argument about angels on the head of a pin; Thomas had no room for stupid questions. But it will involve the study and appreciation of all of the world, not merely the material part of it; of all of man, not merely the animal part of him; of all of the angelic world, not cynically amused caricatures of it. The pictures this study hangs in the minds of men will be strikingly different from those that today too often clutter the mind and shatter the heart. Man will not be found pictured here as a frightened god perched on the barren summit of a world in chaos. Nor will he be seen as no different in kind from the rest of the animals–his oddly human capacities for politics and poetry here are not only accidental differences which set him off from the beasts no more essentially than the fact that he is somewhat more fastidious about his bath. God will not have the hurried, harassed look of a timidly ineffective man; these angels will not be gliding around languidly looking for a holy card on which to alight. All these pictures have no inspiration in the world of reality; and it is only with reality that we are engaged in this volume.
It is extremely important, at the very outset, that we lay hold firmly on these two facts: Thomas, all his life, was a relentless searcher for reality, a ruthless enemy of falsehood; and his supreme work was a book of supernatural theology. In our own time, it has become the fashion to divorce theology from reason and so to destroy any certitude of its relation to reality. As for the supernatural, well that is an insult to our self-sufficiency not to be lightly suffered by an intelligent man. It is not too hard to understand the modern’s impatience with the supernatural, for man has always been proud; but only the intellectual suicide of positivism could be so absurd as to limit the horizons of a man’s mind to what he can uncover by the methods of science. This last has no need of rational refutation for the positivist contradicts himself in the denials that make up his doctrine; he advocates a way of death, rather than of life, for life cannot be lived on a basis of denials, it must be fled from. Men are intolerant of the cowardice of escape; they are sympathetic towards a spirit of independence, even exaggerated independence, though they, and everyone else, are barred from expressing that sympathy when the independence reaches the stage of voluntary confinement.
It is unquestionably true that man, left to his own devices, can gather a tremendous amount of information; so much, in fact, as to be smothered under the pile of facts he has heaped upon his own head. He can even, through the patient labor of the years, acquire something of wisdom’s understanding of the pattern of things, of the distinction between details and essentials, of goals and means to those goals. The point that is overlooked too often is that a man simply cannot wait so long for the advent of wisdom. He has to know these things from the beginning he has a human life to live through all the years that are demanded for the personal achievement of the long view of the wise man; and, for by far the greater number of men, the mind, the heart, the hands are well occupied in winning a livelihood from a grudging mother earth. To be quite frank, there are many men who will never arrive at wisdom under their own power if they live to be a hundred and have absolutely nothing to do but think. To be equally frank, it must be admitted that the wisest of men are going to make mistakes.
This matter of human goals that give the directions for human living is much too important to run such risks. This knowledge cannot wait, it cannot be restricted to a few, it cannot be punctuated by error; if we are content to have it so, it is only because we assume the unimportance of the human individual, the meaninglessness of human life, the certitude of long life, the indifference of truth. All of these assumptions are false. Because they are, man, even in those things that are not strictly above his human powers, must have help. He can assert his absolute independence only at the cost of compromising his knowledge of reality and, ultimately, at the cost of failure in the living of human life. He must accept truth from the source of truth; and be thankful the truth is given him.
Necessity of Wisdom
All this would be true if man’s life were to be fulfilled by a goal within the grasp of his natural powers. When we face the fact that the only goal of man is above all nature, the eternal vision of God, we see something of the desperate necessity for a divine revelation that will give him knowledge of that goal and the means by which he can arrive at it.
The illusion of independence can be bought at much too high a price. It could logically demand that we swim oceans rather than depend on a ship-builder and a navigator, that we toddle through blizzards naked until we can make our own clothes, that we fly by flapping our arms. Whatever the price paid, when we examine the thing in an honest light, the wonder is that we bought such a shoddy product at all; the certainty is that we have been badly cheated. There is nothing so completely useless as the illusion that we are self-sufficient, for there is nothing so completely false.
We must have wisdom from the beginning of life. It cannot be our own; nor is it sufficient if it is some other human being’s. It must be divine, for only God is wise from the beginning. To begin life with the wisdom lent us by divinity, and end it by possessing that wisdom; to meet the charges at each station of life with divinely minted coin; to see the road that stretches before us through the far seeing eyes of God — this is not an insult to human nature, it is an ennoblement of it.
A Divine Science — Its Object
In this atmosphere of nobility theology draws its first breath of life, for the deposit of divinely revealed truth constitutes the life principle of all theological science. If philosophy, as the apex of natural intellectual effort, has deserved the name of human wisdom, then theology is rightly called divine wisdom. All of its varied fabric is given solid substance by the thread of divinity that is woven into it; if we unravel that complex fabric, that single thread will always lead back to God, the source of truth and the goal of it. Without that thread of divinity theology is a name given to a crazy quilt that, paradoxically, is devoid not only of beauty but of variety, monotonous with the grey monotony of despair. It has nothing of wisdom about it, for it has nothing of meaning about it. But drawing its life-blood from the source of all order, theology is vibrant with such significance as man would not have dared to dream, with divine significance for creatures who hardly dare to face human life let alone dream of living divine life.
To speak of theology as a science may sound blasphemous to modern ears. Indeed, it is blasphemous if we restrict science to the treasure buried in the physical world, a treasure to be unearthed only by the pick-axe and spade of the experimental method. But if we take science, as it should be taken, in the larger sense of ripe knowledge plucked from principles that escape the blight of doubt, we can hardly mistake theology as a clever imitation of a live science, to be put under glass as a tribute not to its life but to its artificiality. We can, with an easy mind, expose it to the weather to live its rugged, vibrant life; let the rain fall on it and the wind tug at it, the sun shine on it and its enemies drag their tiny bodies over its broad branches. It will live; its roots are deep enough, its leaves broad enough, its branches high enough; it will live. though many a hybrid die beside it.
Theology’s Place Among the Sciences
Theology is no mongrel in the pack of sciences. Like every other science, it has its proper, and utterly distinctive, field–the field of revealable truths. Its paraphernalia is totally inadequate to furnish it with its principles: so, in common with all other sciences, it gets the principles with which it starts and on which it depends from some other source. The philosopher, with no human science above him, accepts without question the self-evident principles his reason discloses to him or he ceases to be a philosopher. The theologian accepts his principles, not from the science of the physicist, the mathematician or the philosopher, but from the science of God and the saints. No science proves its own principles; nor does theology. But the principles of every other science are susceptible, with the help of another science or directly from nature, of clear vision by the human mind; theology alone accepts principles too clear to be seen by any mind but the mind of God. It believes its principles on the authority of the Truth incapable of error or falsehood.
Let us suppose that all the sciences, in person, were invited to dinner by a great university. Where should theology be seated, among the practical or the speculative sciences? Well, the thing is more practical than domestic economy for it deals with the most practical of things the goal of a man and the roads to the goal; at the same time it is more speculative than metaphysics for it handles truths that are divine. It might take the grapefruit with the speculative sciences, move over to an empty chair for the soup with the practical sciences, back to its original place for the fish, and so on; a little fatiguing, perhaps, but then what can be done? Like many another person with an insoluble problem, the hostess will shelve it and pretend it does not exist, for the moment anyhow. Now about places, who will get the first place and who will slide humbly into the welcome obscurity of the seat far down the table? In the speculative section the question will have to be settled on the certitude of the science and the nobility of its subject matter. Theology jumps down from that mental shelf to worry the hostess: it would be hard to find a more noble subject matter than divinity or to compare the certitude achieved by a human mind to the certitude of the divine word. But the method! Yes, the others may be a little uppish on the question of method, but then how can we make a particular method the norm of precedence; is this a scientific dinner or a meeting of a secret society?
Very well, give theology the first place among the speculative sciences; at least that settles the question of where theology will sit. In the practical section, precedence will be determined by the ultimateness of the end served by the particular science. Obviously medicine will sit above domestic economy, but does it go above or below politics? We can settle that later; what is the very last end served by any science; theology again! The only solution is to sit theology in the very center with the speculative sciences descending on the right and the practical on the left, hoping, of course, that no wit brings up the matter of the sheep and the goats.
But enough of the dinner. Abandoning the figurative language and getting down to hard facts, it is true that the findings of the other sciences seem much more certain to us than the conclusions of theology. Of course; but the flame of an acetylene torch is not less bright because it blinds us, less visible because we must see it through smoked glasses; nor is the divine truth less certain because it is too clear for our eyes, it is not less sure because we have to see it through the obscure glass of faith. It is also true that theology uses philosophy; but that is not because the pillars of divine truth need so much bolstering, it is rather because of the comfort our weakness derives from the clasping hand of philosophy. But we shall come back to this matter of philosophy later on in this chapter.
Theology’s Character as Wisdom
It is difficult to conjure up a picture of a rollicking theologian. Perhaps there have been such, but the odds are against it. Not that theology demands that its disciples all have long, white beards; but it does seem to demand that its youngest masters be old and its oldest masters be young. Perhaps all this is because of the bouquet that wisdom throws off as we warm the word in the hollow of our hands. We do associate wisdom with old age, not because the mind of the old is keener, the heart more eager, but because the tired feet have wandered enough to know the highroad from a bypath, the old eyes have seen enough, to know a trifle from the gem for which a man must sell all he has, because the old hands have worked at tasks enough to know the ephemeral from the enduring. Old age should know more of the answers, it should see more of the pattern, it should escape more of the confusion of the terrific detail of life. Theology is wisdom, old with the agelessness of eternity; but young with the youth of an eternal beginning.
The wise man to be consulted for the answers about the new house that is going up is the architect, not the bricklayer; if he does not know the reasons for things, there aren’t any. He may be stupid in many other lines, but in this one, because he is master of the ultimate purposes of the building, he is wise; in any line, this knowledge of ultimate purposes brings wisdom. When the knowledge is of the last of all purposes, it brings that wisdom that needs no qualification; by it a man is simply wise. This will be the man who knows the answers that really matter; these are the answers for, which the theologian exists.
Theology’s Subject Matter
For the theologian treats of nothing except in relation to the first beginning and the last end. He is in the intellectual order what the saint is in the practical order: a man wholly engaged with God. A general order covering the activity of the two men need suffer no single change in phrasing: “begin this task at once, work at it ceaselessly, finish it in eternity.” For the love of God is not to be encompassed in a lifetime; neither is the knowledge of God. However far afield the mind or the heart may seem to have wandered, both are engaged with God Himself or with the things that pertain to God as Beginning or as End. The saint knows the important answers by the quick intuition that has its deep roots in love; the theologian, by the reasoned argument that has its roots deep in study. When study and love are united to make a saint of a theologian, God has been exceptionally kind to men.
It is into the book of just such a man that we are timidly edging our way. There is a definite reassurance in the fact that Thomas insisted that reason roll up its sleeves and get down to its hardest task; this brings back the first day’s study of any science. Moreover he has adopted the fully developed form of that similar method of Socrates; and what is more familiar than a question? The double flattery of a question is hard to resist; the contentedly ignorant and the insufferably omniscient never ask a question, while the fool is asked a question only by mistake. A question, after all, is the movement of a mind in search of truth and there is nothing so pleasant to disseminate as truth. Children and scholars are living question marks and, as Thomas wrote for childish scholars, it was right that every article of his book be a question demanding a straight answer. To clarify the issue, an opponent, fictitious or real, is introduced each time with so forceful a presentation of objections as to cause a little anxiety in the heart of a follower of Thomas.
Method of Theology
The body of the articles throughout concentrates on the work of explaining, illustrating, persuading, refuting and, where possible, proving. Thomas, of course, does not argue about theology’s principles; no science does that. The inferior sciences depend on their superiors to take care of the borrowed principles; metaphysics, without a superior, will argue about its principles with an opponent who grants some of them; with an opponent who denies all of them it can do nothing but refute the denial, exposing its falsity. The procedure is the same in theology, with the added assurance that every objection in denial has its answer for these principles rest on the immutable truth of God.
But there is plenty of room for argument in theology beneath the principles; nor has there ever been a slackening of that argumentation that destroys error, preserves truth and uncovers still more of truth. Here philosophy is put to work in earnest; here human reason is employed to its fullest strength; for here is a task worthy of the great potentialities of the mind of a man. As a reward for this back-breaking labor, theology restricts the field of possible philosophical error, releasing this flood of conserved energy into the channels of real philosophical investigation. Philosophy is not substituted for, it is not destroyed, not diluted; for grace does not destroy nature, it perfects it. It is not superseded by a higher wisdom; it is consecrated by that higher wisdom.
Conclusion: Thomas’ Interests
This consecration and perfection of nature by grace was a dominant note in the life of Thomas. He could never close his ears to its challenge. From the beginning his mind and heart were complete captives to the enticement of the perfection of God; he fought his mother, his sisters, his brothers that he might be freer to pursue it and, in the race to embrace it, nobility of family, wealth and power, the world itself were cast off as so much dead weight slowing his steps. He read the book of the world with all the intense concentration and genius of his great mind: he pondered the divinely revealed secrets like a miser fondling his gold. As the years passed and virtue mounted he plunged deeper and deeper into that infinite perfection and was more and more overwhelmed by it.
Knowing God so well, he knew himself the better. Not only himself, but all men; it was not for nothing that the divine plans had him tramping up and down the roads of Europe in an age when a friar was the beloved priest of scullery maid and princess, of peasant and prince. A dull-witted man with no human sympathy could hardly go through such an experience without acquiring a deep knowledge of human nature; and Thomas has not been accused, since the grotesque accusation of his student days, of being dull witted or unsympathetic. He read the secrets of the human heart, his own and the hearts of others: seeing their pettiness, cowardice, smug mediocrity and even viciousness, he saw how far they could get from God; but seeing, too, their high hopes, their dogged courage, their quick remorse and unselfish loyalty, he saw how close they could come to God. On this double theme the symphony of his life developed: the perfection of God and the perfectibility of man.
In Defence of God and Man
From his first appearance in a professor’s chair Thomas was embroiled in intellectual battle. That battle continued all of his life; nor is it finished yet. It was, and is, a battle in defense of God and of man. Thomas would not stand by and see God torn down from His divine throne; he could not stand by and see the image of God defaced on earth. God is perfect and man can be perfected; any lessening of the perfection of God is a denial of Him and any lessening of the potentialities of man is a denial of humanity. These two truths must stand whatever the cost of their defense: God is divine and man is capable of a share in divine life. One cannot be attacked without the other going by the board; and at no time in history have both come under so ceaseless a fire as in our own time.
The genius of Thomas could have put up no such fight as it did without the driving force of a love to match its greatness. A love so great, so utterly selfless, so impervious to the allure of every other love could be nothing short of the divine love whose full flower goes by the name of sanctity. Thomas, from the beginning, was head over heels in love with God; to the end his love’s great problem was not to hold a fickle lover but to find the means of spending himself enough to give expression to that love. He came as close to solving that problem as is given to man on earth.
Certainly Thomas placed no conditions on his love. He did not cautiously arrange emergency exits in case love’s demands became too inconvenient. There were no limits of time, of strength, of thought, of surrender involved in this divine contract. Rather that love was a searing flame that consumed the man, that hurled him into a whirlwind of labor that knew no lull until death stopped that great heart. Love such as this may seem a strange thing in a world that has adopted security as a watchword. But only by love such as this will a man ever again come so close to other men and be so intimately joined to God; only on this condition will humanity ever again have such a champion and God such an apostle.
Antidote to Poisons
In his book Thomas offers the twentieth century love and truth; but the love cannot be reveled in until the truth has been mastered. This truth comes as a rather violent antidote to the two modern poisons of intellectual superficiality and naturalistic provincialism.
Another name for that intellectual superficiality is intellectual laziness. It consists in that easy grasping at the first and partial answer, breeding smug satisfaction and a shallowness that will not float an idea. This book looks to the last and the adequate answer, the answer that awes and humiliates, the answer that will intrigue a man’s mind for a lifetime and direct his actions beyond the limits of life. Thomas’ effort for beginners was not directed to the cultivation of the ability to quote others; its aim was to develop the capacity to think for oneself. His is not an emphasis of facts to the neglect of wisdom; his book cannot be read as a memory exercise. Laying it aside after some careful reading, we cannot dismiss it with such remarks as: “how interesting, how odd.” It will hit us between the eyes, or it will not touch us at all; for the ultimate answers cannot be looked at without deep personal reverberations.
Provincialism of Naturalism
Against the provincialism of naturalism, Thomas discovers the meaning of the natural world by frankly stepping into the supernatural; he discovers the perfect fulfillment of man by refusing to accept man as the perfect fulfillment of the universe; his book rejects the modernist’s contempt for the past by offering cultural contact with the wisdom of the ages and with one of the greatest intellects the world has yet seen.
Life’s Meaning, Goal and Exemplar
This man is not to be framed in a stained-glass window; his book is not a library decoration. This is a man and a book providentially designed for the needs of the twentieth century. Certainly no age has greater need for ultimate answers, for a plan of action, for an exemplar of human living; for no age has had less conception of the meaning of life, the things that go into successful living, the manner in which human life must be lived to be successful. In his three great divisions of this book, Thomas gives us precisely these things: a study of the divine architect and His completed work; a study of the goal of human life and the human actions by which that goal is attained; a study of the God who became man that men might become like unto God.