Tuesday, July 28, 2009
St. Thomas Aquinas
I have never read more than a few selected excerpts from Thomas Aquinas, so I walked into this biography, written by G.K. Chesterton, with little background details of this famous theologian. I knew Aquinas mostly for his cosmological argument for the existence of God. But I quickly realized that what I knew of Aquinas was just a boiled down, over-simplified argument from one of the most brilliant minds to walk the earth.
Chesterton is a great writer, and he is great because of his versatility and his lucidity. He writes rollicking fiction, penetrating philosophy, and engaging biography, all the while retaining his distinct writer’s voice. He doesn’t get bogged down in the details of Aquinas’ daily life, which is the common cause for so many biographies being completely mind-numbingly boring unless you already care about the person. Instead, Chesterton chooses to tell the story of Aquinas, of his incredible intellect and his remarkable use of common sense.
The book makes you want to read Aquinas for yourself, and I think it gives you the necessary tools to do so. Chesterton shows not only the historical significance of Aquinas, but offers him as a bastion of clear thinking in an age we moderns like to look down upon. He turns our preconceived notions of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and modern philosophy upside down, revealing the traits of Aquinas’ thinking that offer so much insight into our world today. And that is why I found the book fascinating. He takes Thomas Aquinas out of the tomb of compartmentalized history, shedding the rose-colored lens of progressivism that we tend to look through when we analyze anybody in history. What comes out is a story of a man whose way of thinking could be so useful for us today.
Chesterton doesn’t give the biographer’s usual golf clap to his subject’s life, making the person seem so far removed from the present. Rather, he tells the story of Thomas Aquinas, and along the way you get the sense that there are truths to be mined in the writings of Aquinas that speak to our current lives just as much as they did to the people of long ago.
All these traits make this book a solid read for anyone who enjoys a good story, and I think it’s safe to say that you will come out the other side with a fresh perspective not only on Aquinas, but on the broader realm of thinking in general.