The idleness of Saint Thomas
I have been reading that Angelic Doctor again, as part of my continuing Mediaeval binge — hunting hungrily for Thomistic advice on the nature of Beauty. Though large, & potentially vexing, this is not a subject on which most people consult Saint Thomas. One might almost say he writes as if there were only two Platonic transcendentals, the Good & the True. Yet there are enlightening, even startling passages (I may give a brief list later, in footnotes), scattered randomly through his works. Had we asked him to compose a treatise on Aesthetics, I’m sure he would have done so. But it’s too late now.
In the course of my hare chase, a very simple point came home to me. I realized why Moderns, including those who appear to be trying, cannot get much thrill from “the philosophical system of Thomas Aquinas,” nor even a purchase on it. This is for a fundamental reason, which has nothing to do with the presence of Catholic doctrine, per se. The Thomist “system” is not a system. It is open-ended. From the light of what is known, it attempts to cast on what is not known; to extend knowledge. The project is to answer reasonable questions as they arise. Nota bene: “as they arise.”
Thomas does not “solve problems.” That is what system builders do. He answers questions, which is a much different thing. The “problematic” — I think but am not sure — is an invention of the modern imagination. It presupposes a neurotic condition, on which I will comment shortly.
The Modern Mind cannot cope with open-ended things. It requires system in a formal schematic sense; “pure” theory; a consistent & undeviating method. It demands perfection — everything, or nothing. It wants watertight divisions between subjects, & cellular divisions within each. It requires jargon, & all the rest of the machinery of abstraction. This it does not find in the Summas, but instead, brilliant rambling from one question to another, & idleness of a very high order. (As Josef Pieper is my witness, there is no jargon in Saint Thomas, at all; just as there is no mistake in reasoning, or after all these centuries surely one would have been found.)
A formal system is supposed, from the outward appearance of the Summas, but there is no such thing inside. Therefore the Modern thinks Thomas must be cheating. But the architecture of these immense treatises, beautiful to first sight, is different in kind from modern intellectual architecture. They are built “generationally,” like mediaeval cathedrals. This does not mean each did not start with a plan. It starts with a plan that is then constantly adapted, but with a view to the whole. Whereas, the modern building is delivered to a contract, & the slightest digression from the drawings may involve lawsuits.
That part of the opera which is most “purely” philosophical (as opposed to theological, though no more than math is opposed to physics) — not the Summa Contra Gentiles, but the Commentaries on Aristotle — has no structure at all. Thomas follows the text of The Philosopher, & expounds it. To the reader of modern commentaries, this is extraordinary. Years ago, in my earnest youth, trying to follow Thomas following the Metaphysics (& it was the most useful commentary I found, by far), I was amazed that it never occurred to him to question the integrity of the text, the compositional order of the books, &c. To my recollection, he did not propose a single textual emendation. And thanks to this curiously unmodern habit, he found all kinds of sense in passages which left the modern commentators utterly baffled. The text looked good to him. It seemed to have been left in a comprehensible order. It repaid study, just as it stood.
Another way to put this, is that the modern scholar is — not entirely of course, but in the main — a malicious idiot. If he cannot understand what is before him, he changes it to what he can understand.
If we can get to Heaven, one of the things we will discover there (I feel fairly certain), is that not only the Bible, but other surviving ancient texts, came down through the centuries reasonably intact. This was for the simple reason that those transcribing usually knew what they were doing — or they would not have been transcribing. It stands to reason. There were many little flaws, to be sure, but even those tended to be shaken out when one manuscript collided with another.
Faith involves trust; & in the Age of Faith, trust was more common. To the Modern Mind it was much too common. We pursue scepticism over the boundary into neurosis. They, although sometimes downright naïve, were less inclined to become insane.
As Saint Thomas realizes, from sudden start to sudden end (the Mediaevals hardly ever finished anything), final perfection is not available in this world. A Modern might allow this in theory, but cannot possibly abide it in practice. We don’t start what we can’t finish. For Thomas, whose way of thinking must necessarily appear backward to a Modern, the way forward is the other way. We should rather proceed with what we have, than with what we don’t have, & see where it will lead. And on this strategy, we immediately discover that we have more than we realized, to be getting on with. And that, more of it fits together than we had any right to expect. And that, what we have begun, another may continue, as God may will. For the universe isn’t “all about me.”
The basic Thomist, or High Mediaeval philosophical approach is, What makes sense? It is not “how can we know” but “what can we know.” Faith gets them past that first turnstile, in which the Modern Mind is permanently jammed. They could believe what they could not know with certainty. We can’t believe what we do certainly know.
And so to bed: Beauty is objective.
It is not “in the eye of the beholder,” but dwells in the heart of that which exists. It is revealed to those who look for it. It may be found, at least to some slight degree, in everything that actually exists. Conversely, it cannot be found in things that do not exist — which is just where we look for it today. An artist might thus, in a sense, “create” beauty. (Here I long for Saint Thomas to treat at greater length of the defect of ugliness as untruthfulness or “fakery”: the canker of an unreality within the real.) Reality is the ultimate source of beauty, & the degree of beauty in a thing is proportionate to its perfection in its own kind. There is thus a hierarchy in beauty which accords with gradations of being within the Creation, & which leads beyond this world.
The analysis of the Beautiful reveals three necessary constituents: First, the carrying into this world of the divine perfection & completeness, though in a representative if finite & mortal thing. Second, the display of harmony & proportion in the parts. Third, the presence of a splendour that is irreducible, yet knowable in degree through analogy & likeness.
Curiously the triune personality of the transcendentals is reproduced within each transcendental, so that in this case we have been referring respectively to the truth, the goodness, & the beauty, within Beauty. We can know what Beauty is when we see it, but this analysis can actually help us to see. Also, to distinguish the components: for example, goodness is appetitive, but beauty is cognitive. (Each intimates of Heaven, while offering the consolation of a means of satisfaction within this world.)
Reading & trying to plumb such observations, I reflect without surprise that when he was not engaged in prayer, philosophy, theology, eating, sleeping, exchanging pleasantries in the street, or walking across Europe — & perhaps even when he was — Thomas Aquinas was an extraordinary poet. His eucharistic hymns are poetically sublime, & of an almost superhuman craftsmanship. If we turn to him on questions of “aesthetics,” we turn to the accomplished master of an art, not to some voluble, well-meaning amateur.
There is a great deal that Thomas could say, but does not though he implies & suggests pregnantly. His account of Truth provides rich parallels. For Beauty is a source of knowledge or insight into beings & things, & thus the nature of nature. It is also a source of delight, & of rest. It is relational in a way parallel with Truth, where the relation is between the thing & the intellection of the thing by the knowing subject; the Truth requires intelligence. Likewise, in the Beautiful, we find a binding relation between the thing & the perception of the thing; & the Beautiful requires perception. We are taught & through teaching transformed in the contemplation of each, by which God draws us nearer — just as He does through the virtuous actions that attend upon the Good. But note, please, that the relational does not mean “relative,” for in each case an absolute is enjoined.
And more, & more. How I long for a leisure even greater than I have.
Augustine (in De Vera Religione) did not wobble on the question whether beautiful things are beautiful because they please us, or please us because they are beautiful. The latter is true. The former proposition is nonsense, & can only seem to be true because our apprehension of beauty is itself variable, & defective. Thomas Aquinas gives the same answer, in his dispassionate way.
Because we are blind, or make ourselves blind, to reality, we do not see the beauty in things. One might call it “cultural conditioning” to blindness; & what we make is made by the blind, leading the blind. We will only accept Beauty itself as a thing; as a separated quantity. But it is not a thing, not a quantity, nor even “a quality,” & decidedly not a theory. It is rather in things — dwelling in the very heart or essence of things — to be seen or not seen.
Alas, the Modern Mind, deprived of that reverent silence which makes contemplation possible, can no longer grasp something that has no theory, because it does not require a theory, because it is self-evident. We do not see what is directly before our eyes. Notwithstanding, to see again, we do not need a Doctor. We need instead to open our eyes.