Quote for the day

Principia essentialia rerum sunt nobis ignota. … Or, as we might put it in English, “The essential principles of things are unknown to us.” The quote comes very early in the commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima, by Thomas Aquinas. The same or like point is made, passim, through the latter’s works, but I’d been looking for the clincher to make my point that Saint Thomas was not a “systematic philosopher,” against several email correspondents who allege that he was, one of whom claims to be “a Thomist,” & has a few more degrees than I have, to push his opinion home.

But Saint Thomas held Groucho Marx’s (& Karl’s, & Leo Tolstoy’s) position on clubs that would have him as a member. He would have denied, rather forcefully, being a Thomist himself. Indeed, we forget that for all his tranquility & sublimity of spirit, he could be quite forceful in explaining what’s what to the scholastic, soi-disant “Augustinians” of his day — who thought Christian teaching had already solved the philosophical puzzles; & to the Latin Averroists — who thought it could solve nothing. (These latter were in effect our first “modern philosophers,” insisting upon the detachment of philosophy from theology, of reason from faith. But as Thomas realizes, the truth is not divisible, & as one grows out of the other, they cannot be detached.)

The magnificent architecture of the Summa Theologica is, in the best sense, childishly simple. The First Part deals with God, & what we must know of Him. The Second Part, of Creatures, thus that for which we pray. The Third Part, of Christ, therefore what we must do. The whole thing is presented as a tract “for beginners.” In every part, reason is used to carry us through what can be known, to the edge of rationally impenetrable Mystery. The work itself breaks off, incomplete, in practice. But it never attempted completion, “in theory” — from the clearest possible understanding that that could not be done. What can be done is to detach mere puzzlement & confusion from genuine Mystery. And, this Thomas does like a very able soldier.

There is happily not yet an English word, “reactionism.” The appeal of the “reactionary” position, at least to me, is that it eschews system or Ism entirely. This would include Progressive Ism of course, but also Conservate Ism, along with Thom Ism. They may mean something as vague tendencies, but are nothing in themselves except fanciful orchestrations of illusion. Likewise, Christian Ism should not exist, any more than Islam Ism, except as the description of a tendency, towards Error. Ism Ism is like the upholstery mentioned in a recent post on “The invention of comfort.” Perhaps the softest upholstery of all is Nihil Ism, with its fairweather partner, Scient Ism.

Christ, in His Gospels, gives us no help at all with the political & economic & other Ismic questions. He leaves us totally at a loss where to begin with these things — & goes out of His way to do so. Thomas, along with the Fathers of the Church, including Augustine, will not supply the intentionally missing pieces. In politics, it is interesting that Thomas writes, when requested, “On Kingship,” not on how to construct or manage a kingdom, the way Machiavelli does. Augustine went so far as to contrast the City of God with the City of Man.

But more fundamentally, the essential principles of things are unknown to us, & will remain unknown, so long as the history of this world continues. Faith in every Ism is misplaced. I should think a lot of people will agree with this proposition, including me; but it takes work to pick all the sour little Isms out of our breakfast cereal.

To which end, it strikes me that Catholic Ism is a tendency, too; & perhaps in its nature a tendency to Error, just like Protestant Ism. The Church is real, & also Mysterious; all heresies, to be understood, must be rejected. Our calling to be Christian is clearly Revealed, & reception into Holy Church follows necessarily from it. All the Christian virtues enjoin humility & obedience, to say nothing of fortitude within this Institution which Christ founded, & continues to endow. If Catholic Ism means getting to Mass, I’m for it. But where it is presented as an alternative to Christianity — as alas it sometimes is, by the fanatic in each of us — being Catholic paradoxically requires the rejection of Catholic Ism.

Likewise I think it worth considering the abandonment of Evangel Ism, in favour of evangelizing; & a few other anti-Ismic gestures.