Sunday, March 12, 2006

Broken Boulders for Words

I’ve just finished G.K. Chesterton’s Saint Thomas Aquinas,” The Dumb Ox”. Puzzling little book. Chesterton writes in an odd style, a back and forth “yes and no, but also no, and not quite yes “ structure to his sentences. He dribbles words like a basketball, and moves quickly up and down the court. I believe I’ll look for another book on Aquinas. George Weigel in The Cathedral and the Cube started my interest in Aquinas, as did President Aristotle. Weigel said there is a quarrel between William of Ockam’s nominalism and Thomas Aquinas which continues to this day. Nominalism denies the existence of universals. (See also Richard Weaver’s book, Ideas Have Consequences. He saw Ockham through the same lens as George Weigel.)

According to this philosophy, universals--concepts such as "justice" or "freedom" and qualities such as "white" or "good"--do not exist in the abstract but are merely words that denote instances of what they describe. A current of thought was set into motion, Mr. Weigel believes, that pulled European man away from transcendent truths. One casualty was a fixed idea of human nature.

"If there is no such thing as human nature," Mr. Weigel argues, "then there are no universal moral principles that can be read from human nature." If there are no universal moral truths, then religion, positing them, is merely a form of oppression or myth, one from which Europe's elites see themselves as liberated.

Chesterton touches on this difference writing about the change in meaning of the word formal, from medieval times to now. Its meaning now is debased; the ‘form letter’ is empty sincerity. In Aquinas’ time, as Chesterton writes: a "formal apology tore the very heart out in tears of true contrition. “
“ For ‘formal’ in Thomist language means actual, or possessing the real decisive quality that makes a things itself. (emphasis mine) Roughly when he describes a thing as made out of Form and Matter, he very righly recognizes that Matter is the more mysterious and indefinite and featureless element; and that what stamps anything with its own identity is its Form. Matter , so to speak, is not so much the solid as the liquid or gaseous thing in the cosmos; and in this most modern scientists are beginning to agree with him. (Note: this was written in 1933, before quantum physics.) But the form is the fact; it is that which makes a brick a brick, and a bust a bust, and not the shapeless and trampled clay of which either may be made. The stone that broke a statuette, in some Gothic niche, might have been itself a statuette; and under chemical analysis, the statuette is only a stone. But such a chemical analysis is entirely false as a philosophical analysis. The reality, the thing that makes the two things real, is in the idea of the image and in the idea of the image-breaker….Every artist knows that the form is not superficial but fundamental; that the form is the foundation."

How might Aquinas' insights apply to ideas? They are somewhat hard to make, though easier to break. No, no, not break, distort. Too easily counterfeited or corrupted. Secularism, modernism, nominalism, all t he same gray nihilism. Does atheistic, secular humanism admit to any heresies? It seems their most grave sin is intolerance, and their acolytes compete for the amount of abuse, perdition, dishonor and bad music they can put up with. Having confused judgement with judgementalism, both have been set aside. Themselves cast adrift. Like a return to the mother’s womb at the age of 50. Confusing stupidity with ignorance, they rise to anger when this distinction is pointed out. This sort of thinking is like bad grammar. Subject and verb quarreling, number and all other mistakes pounded and pestled to a mushy gray.

What I’m trying to say and have not said well yet… If we, on our own authority, decide there is no point or purpose in the pursuit of faith, we have used the same authority to deny meaning with which we should affirm it. Contradiction and conundrum. Do we believe the meaning must be there, outside of us first; I’ll believe it when I see it? Isn’t this supposing revelation must precede faith and/or belief? But if we do not begin with doubt and move towards faith, where else can one begin? We cannot start with faith. To begin there and then move to what? Again, the words of Him we’ve been made queasy to name, “ To him who hath, more shall be given, to him who hat not, even that which he has shall be taken away.”

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