on August 16, 2005
I first read this book 5 years ago when taking an undergraduate course in mediaeval philosophy. At that time I was only passingly familiar with Chesterton and, despite faithful attendence in class, only noddingly familiar with Aquinas. Since that time I have come to understand both men in more depth, and since that time this little book has grown and shimmered until, much to my surprise, it has became one of my favourite books of all.
All of the usual caveats about Chesterton's writing apply here: he cannot resist a digression, he cannot resist an alliterative allusion, he cannot resist a pun. He is so full of life that he is constantly threatening to spin out of control. He is not a scholar, he is not writing a sober appraisal, he is probably not sure of most of the biographical details of his subject (and he candidly admits to this dearth of dates and details).
In spite of these defects, the book is a triumph. Toast it with your best wine. Chesterton, for me, is the embodiment of "A Man in Full"; he is the polar opposite of C.S. Lewis' "Men without Chests". He is so full of good sense, penetrating insight, sound moral judgement, and the joy of life that it is all spilling out in every direction. This is criticism in an old key; it is appreciative criticism; it is an encounter with a writer by an entire man, and not just by a theory. It is wonderfully refreshing. I don't know of anyone writing today in a similar vein.
He brings all of his larger-than-life presence to bear on this account of the life (sort of) and thought of one of history's great minds. And on just what aspect of Thomas' thought does he focus? In one diabolically politically incorrect section near the end of the book he bellows out that "on a map like the mind of Aquinas the mind of Luther was barely a speck", and I'm sure that he would hasten to add that his little book suffers the same ignoble comparison. There is a great deal to Thomas that he, of necessity, leaves out. But what he does include is very astutely chosen, for he understands the basic structure of Thomas' thought and emphasizes the essentials. Thus there is a chapter on Thomas' argument with the Manicheans and his affirmation of the goodness of the world. He treats with great aplomb Thomas' notion of "being" and its relation to God. He does great honor to Thomas' mode of argumentation, to his sober balance and fair treatment of opponents. He is appreciative of the devotional side of Thomas, which does not come through explicitly in his philosophical writings but is important for an understanding of the man.
I suppose it must be granted that the book is as much about Chesterton as it is about Aquinas. Those wanting a more straight-forward treatment should seek out one of Josef Pieper's books on Aquinas. But if you have any adventurous spirit, by all means read this book. It is written by a man who loves and understands his subject in his very bones, and who brings his subject to life in a way that is most uncanny. Five stars.
on June 20, 2002
One of Chesterton's highly acclaimed short biographies, writing just before WWII he called this 'a popular sketch of a great historical character who ought to be more popular'. St Thomas Aquinas (1226-1274) was born into an aristocratic Italian family and forsook his privileged position, took a vow of poverty, and became a Dominican monk. A brilliant thinker, and revolutionary in his day, he proceeded to become one of the most influential philosophers and theologians that has lived. It explains how Aquinas' influenced thinkers in his day and how that thought is an influential strand in our modern worldview.
Several experts on Aquinas have acclaimed this very enjoyable book as the finest introduction to the man and his works. It introduces the man himself and some of his philosophy, which is modern and scientific in tone. This is not to be surprised at when we consider that his university professor was Albertus Magnus, who paved the way for modern science by taking certain elements of Aristotle more seriously than anyone before. Aquinas' theology is not covered on grounds of space and complexity. Chesterton is writing at his best, and while he assumes a fair degree of knowledge on the part of the reader he covers a great deal of ground in a short space. His usual paradoxical sense of fun and wordplay is to the fore. Chapter seven, 'The Permanent Philosophy' is excellent, and at only twelve pages would serve as a good primer of philosophy, something to read before and alongside Bertrand Russell's 'The Problems of Philosophy' perhaps.