G.K. Chesterton’s biography on St. Thomas Aquinas is a masterful work indeed. I cannot help but echo the renowned Thomistic scholar Dr. Ralph McInerny when he says, “Chesterton was a genius in that the knew things he had not learned and learned things the rest of us miss. But how in the world he knew enough about Thomas Aquinas to write this remarkable little book is still something of a mystery – or perhaps only a proof of his genius.” (p. 9)
I have a great love for St. Thomas and it warmed my heart to read of the stories from his saintly life from such a character as G.K. Chesterton. I rather quite imagine St. Thomas standing sheepishly by in all humility as Chesterton told yet another rambunctious story from the Angelic Doctor’s life. In fact, St. Thomas’s silence on the subject better amplifies Chesterton’s point; St. Thomas cared too much for the truth to deny even a story of his own holiness, but would gladly quiet the large Englishman if he could do so without an affront against truth.
I think of one such story that shows not only the great mind of St. Thomas, but, most endearingly, the personality and temperament of this great saint. Attending a banquet of the great king, St. Louis, (an invitation he undoubtedly accepted under the command of his superiors), St. Thomas was so absorbed in thought that during a lull in the conversation, “brought down his huge fist like a club of stone, with a crash that startled everyone like an explosion; and had cried out in a strong voice, but like a man in the grip of a dream, “And that will settle the Manichees!” (p. 94)
But, surprisingly to me, the most profound sections issued forth on the Angelic Doctor from the lips of Chesterton had naught to do with St. Thomas’s life, but his philosophy. In hindsight, it is only reasonable that the “Apostle of Common Sense” G.K. Chesterton could so clearly describe St. Thomas’s common sense philosophy. For those unfamiliar with St. Thomas’s work or even those who, like myself, are struggling to grasp its basics, the last three chapters in Chesterton’s book grasp the core of Thomism with an iron grip. As Pope Leo XIII states in his encyclical On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy, “There is nothing which We have longer wished for and desired than that you should give largely and abundantly to youths engaged in study the pure streams of wisdom which flow from the Angelic Doctor as from a perennial and copious spring” (AP, 26) and no one presents the core of that philosophy better than with the wit and genius of G.K. Chesterton.
Take for example, “‘There is an Is’. That is as much monkish credulity as St. Thomas asks of us at the start. Very few unbelievers start by asking us to believe so little. And yet, upon this sharp pin-point of reality, he rears by long logical processes that have never really been successfully overthrown, the whole cosmic system of Christendom.” (p.153)
Or, “A hundred human philosophies, ranging over the earth from Nominalism to Nirvana and Maya, from formless evolution to mindless quietism, all come from this first break in the Thomist chain; the notion that, because what we see does not satisfy us or explain itself, it is not even what we see. That cosmos is a contradiction in terms and strangles itself; but Thomism cuts itself free. The defect we see, in what is, is simply that it is not all that is. God is more actual even than Man; more actual even than Matter; for God with all His powers at every instant is immortally in action.” (p. 156)
Chesterton’s clear words cut through the foolish relativism of the modernist mind and provide a substantial foundation from which one can even begin to think. And, while the entire book is well worth a read, I emphatically recommend that everyone read at least the three final chapters in which G.K. Chesterton affirms the great words of Pope Leo XIII who said, “Men of the greatest learning and worthy of the highest praise both in theology and philosophy, having sought out with incredible diligence the immortal writings of Thomas, surrendered themselves to his angelic wisdom, not so much to be taught by his words, as to be altogether nourished by them.” (AP, 19)