Posts Tagged ‘St. Thomas Aquinas’

Pieper: The Silence of Goethe

August 28, 2017

The Silence of Goethe
Josef Pieper
(St Augustine’s Press, 2009)
xii + 67 p.

Some time ago I noted the origins of this little book: Pieper, finding himself confined in a German POW camp, but with access to the complete works of Goethe, passed the time by reading the volumes in their entirety. This in itself was remarkable, but perhaps even more striking was that he then put pen to paper to write about the silence of Goethe.

Silence was a theme that attracted Pieper; another of his books, and a rather good one, is The Silence of St Thomas (the subject of which is, once again, one of the most prolific authors in history). But whereas in that case Pieper focused on what Thomas’ silence — that is, the topics he did not write about, or that he thought could not be written about — told us about his metaphysics and his theology, in this book on Goethe the themes are more modest, the silences of Goethe, like his words, not being as pregnant as those of St Thomas.

In this book Pieper reflects on what Goethe said about the relevance of silence, and of reticence more generally, to a well-lived life. It takes the form of a series of brief reflections on passages gleaned from Goethe’s works.

One of the themes that emerges is that silence is necessary for the health and flourishing of an inner life, for it is a hidden source from which one draws strength:

“What is best is the deep stillness in which, against the world, I live and grow, and gain what it cannot take from me by fire and sword.”


“There is deep meaning in the mad notion that it is necessary to act in silence in order to raise and take possession of a treasure properly; it is not permitted to say one word, no matter how much that is shocking and delightful may appear on all sides.”

This reminds me of something I once read in St John of the Cross in which he counselled his readers “never to reveal to another what God is doing in your inmost heart”, for by such revelations one risks distorting or destroying that delicate reality. And Goethe, too, seems to have felt that one should be circumspect about the highest things, lest one speak of them inadequately. Writes Pieper, “Even with his closest and dearest friends he remained silent about the most exalted things.” His friends noted that he became silent when talk turned to divine matters, saying, “Our best convictions cannot be expressed in words. Language is not capable of everything.”

Part of what Goethe understood by silence was public silence — that is, staying out of the public eye. “You live properly only if you live a hidden life.” Again, there is a certain irony here inasmuch as Goethe was forever putting his books before the public, and he was one of the best-known men in Europe, but his books were not himself, were not about himself, and so retained a kind of reticence. But it seems he enjoyed the contrast he cultivated between private reserve and public persona: “This is then the great charm of the otherwise questionable life of an author: that one is silent with one’s friends and at the same time prepared a great conversation with them which reaches out to every part of the world.”

He also maintained a prudent silence because he thought that the public did not, by and large, deserve to know his thoughts on various matters, being too preoccupied with gossip and sensation. This might be thought contemptuous, but Pieper defends him by drawing on St Thomas, who, in his Commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics, said of the magnanimous man that “in his attitude to the throng he uses irony” and that he is rightly contemptuous of mean-spiritedness. “Such contempt is as little at odds with humility as it is at odds with truth, since no one’s just claim to honor is being injured.”

In the deepest sense, Goethe saw silence is a preparation for listening, for perceiving and receiving reality more clearly and fully. Says Pieper, “This listening silence is much deeper than the mere refraining from words and speech in human intercourse. It means a stillness, which, like a breath, has penetrated into the inmost chamber of one’s own soul. It is meant, in the Goethean “maxim”, to “deny myself as much as possible and to take up the object into myself as purely as it is possible to do”.” Pieper comments that “It is here that Goethe represents what, since Pythagoras, may be considered the silence tradition of the West”. There is a kind of hope implicit in this silence, since it waits in expectation of something true and good.

The second half of this (already very brief) volume consists of short excerpts from Goethe’s letters. Some of these continue the theme of silence, but others wander further afield. Since they present no clearly unified picture, I’ll conclude by simply quoting a few of those that struck me most forcefully.


“For we really ought not to speak of what we will do, of what we are doing, nor of what we have done.”

“A person who is used to silence remains silent.”

“What a person must do allows him to show what he is inwardly like. Anyone can live arbitrarily.”

“We can do no more than build a stack of wood and dry it properly. Then it will catch fire at the right time and we ourselves will be astonished by it.”

“If I had nothing to say except what people want to hear, I would be completely silent.”

“There are three kinds of reader: one who enjoys without making a judgment, a third who judges without enjoyment, and, in the middle, one who judges while enjoying and enjoys while judging. This middle one reproduces a work of art anew.”

“An individual has to give an account of himself. No one comes to his aid.”

“To see people and things exactly as they are and to say exactly what is on our mind — this is the right thing. We should not and cannot do more.”

McGunn on the Summa Theologiae

July 25, 2016

Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae
A Biography
Bernard McGunn
(Princeton, 2014)
272 p.

The idea of writing a “biography” of a book is an odd but interesting one. Books, like persons, originate in a particular time and place, have a particular character and range of interests, and exert a certain influence in the world. Unlike the life of an individual person, the life of a great book continues over many generations, and the book has the potential to become a permanent cultural possession.

Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae is an especially daunting book. The edition I own runs to about 3000 double-columned pages in small type, and though I have often entertained the idea of reading through it in a systematic way — it is structured in such a way as to accommodate brief, step-by-step encounters — yet to this point I have done little more than dabble. Probably I’ve spent more time reading about the Summa than reading the thing itself.

mcgunn-summaMcGunn discusses Thomas’ life and the circumstances under which the Summa was written. He talks about Thomas’ motives in undertaking such a massive effort and about the readers for whom it was written. He discusses several important questions relevant to our understanding of the Summa as a whole, such as Thomas’ understanding of the nature of theology, and of the relationship between philosophy and theology. Although many books on Thomas and the Summa focus on Thomas’ contributions to philosophy — his epistemology, his metaphysics, his ethics — it is fair to say that McGunn is at least and possibly more interested in his contributions to theology. This is fitting; the Summa is a book of theology.

A middle section of the book gives a superb overview of the structure of the Summa, outlining the content of its various parts. Embedded in the pages of the Summa are a variety of focused investigations of specific topics: law, ethics, creation, sacraments, Christ, and so on. McGunn helps us to see how these pieces fit together into the overall logical structure of the work.

The last half of the present book is devoted to the “biography” — that is, the history of the book and its reception after it was completed (or, in the case of the Summa, not completed). Initially Thomas’ Summa faced serious obstacles, mostly on account of his decision to couch his thought in Aristotelian terms, which were viewed with suspicion in some quarters, and certain of Thomas’ propositions were condemned by some ecclesiastical authorities. But the Dominicans took a special pride in Thomas’ accomplishments, and adopted the Summa for educational purposes from an early date. By the sixteenth century Thomas’ star had risen high enough for Luther to designate the Catholic Church as “the Thomistic church” (and, with his usual perspicacity, he identified St Thomas as “the source and foundation of all heresy, error, and obliteration of the Gospel”). The rumour (repeated by Pope Leo XIII) that the Summa was on the altar next the Bible at the Council of Trent McGunn says is false, but Thomas did continue to accumulate honours: in 1567 Pope St Pius V named him a Doctor of the Church — the first person to be so honoured since the patristic period — and toward the end of the sixteenth century the Jesuits adopted Thomas as their official theologian; several of the most important commentaries on the Summa were written by Jesuits (viz. Suarez). But with the passing of time the Summa eventually fell on hard times. The work itself was eclipsed in the scholarly mind by commentaries upon it, and these eventually grew so weighty and dry that they became, in the early modern period, objects of scorn. The rise of modern philosophy occurred without the Summa being a point of reference (except perhaps for Descartes, at second or third hand). McGunn says, incredibly, that when, in the mid-nineteenth century, John Henry Newman wanted to read it, he couldn’t find a copy.

These declining fortunes were reversed by the election of a Thomist to the papacy in the latter-half of the nineteenth-century. In 1879 Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Aeterni Patris, in which he praised St Thomas as the Christian philosopher par excellence and recommended not only his example but also his particular ideas as of special and enduring value to the Church. From this point, Catholic intellectuals began to engage with the thought of St Thomas again in an especially intense way. Intense, but far from uniform. The hope of Leo XIII that Thomism could provide a united front with which the Church could contend against the manifold errors of the modern world was not realized, for there turned out to be not just Thomism, but Thomisms, and an interesting section of the book traces these different schools over the course of the twentieth century. There were those who saw Thomism as a kind of trans-historical philosophical vantage point, such as Garrigou-Lagrange. There were those who sought, on the contrary, to understand St Thomas and his contributions in historical context while retaining an interest in his modern relevance (Etienne Gilson, Jacques Maritain). And there were others who sought to put Thomas into conversation with modern philosophy (Bernard Lonergan, Karl Rahner). These names are all familiar — I am especially fond of Gilson — but it is helpful to see them placed on a map.

Vatican II, inadvertently or not, brought about a decline in the centrality of St Thomas for Catholic thought. It is tempting to see this as another instance of the oft-repeated pattern whereby the post-Conciliar Church, by a kind of infallible clumsiness, allowed her treasures to fall into neglect. I don’t think it healthy that the Church’s intellectual life be identified strongly with one particular framework, but of all possible frameworks which could maintain a lively presence in the Church’s intellectual life, that of St Thomas is a rich and worthy one. In Fides et Ratio, Pope St John Paul II taught that the Church has no official philosophy, but recommended St Thomas as an exemplar of Catholic intellectual life.


I read the book at a leisurely pace, and enjoyed it very much. McGunn is not himself a Thomist, so he brings an outsider’s perspective, which might be advantageous in some respects. Of course, nobody is free of prejudices, and some of his do come through, not all of which were appealing to me. I got the general feeling that McGunn doesn’t love Thomas quite as much as he ought to. But overall I did find it a worthwhile and interesting book.

The cover of the book, shown above, reproduces Filippo Lippi’s The Dispute of St Thomas, which one can see in the Cappella Carafa at Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, a chapel which I have visited every time I’ve been to the Eternal City and which is dear to my heart.


This volume is part of an ongoing series issued by Princeton University Press of “biographies” of great religious books. Other entries in the series include the Book of Common Prayer, Augustine’s Confessions, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and books from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition too, such as the Bhagavad Gita. I expect many of those would be worthwhile too.

Hither and yon

March 30, 2016

A few interesting items that came my way over the past few weeks:

  • Joseph Pieper’s wonderful book Leisure, the Basis of Culture merits whatever loving attention it receives, but I never thought I would see an admiring appraisal illustrated with pictures from children’s books.
  • My heart rose when I heard that Bob Dylan would be releasing another album later this year, rumoured to be called Fallen Angels … and then it fell when I learned it would be another batch of Sinatra songs.
  • Meanwhile, Dylan has made available a cornucopia of notebooks and paraphernalia for scholarly study. Time to book that flight to Tulsa?
  • Fr Paul Murray, O.P. delivers a very fine lecture entitled “Aquinas: Poet and Contemplative”, in which he considers the devotional life of the great philosopher saint, especially as manifest in his Latin poetry. This is a side of St Thomas which we don’t consider often enough.
  • Matthew Buckley has begun a series of articles explaining the physics under study at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, where the Higgs Boson was discovered a few years ago. I’ve not known of Matthew Buckley before, but the first instalment in his series is a superb example of popular science writing.
  • The largest ever exhibition of the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch has opened at the Noordbrabants Museum in the Netherlands. I do love Bosch! The highlight of my visit to Madrid some years ago was spending a few hours in the Bosch room at the Prado gallery, and were I to be in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the next few months I’d be there to see those paintings, and others, again. In this overview of the exhibition, Michael Prodger argues that Bosch is not best understood as a Renaissance artist, much less a modern (as he has sometimes been said to be), but as a medieval artist through and through.
  • Roger Scruton, in an excerpt from a forthcoming book, writes about the relationship between two post-war German masterpieces: Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen.

For an envoi, let’s hear Metamorphosen, for 23 stringed instruments:

Pieper: On Justice

August 30, 2013

On Justice
Josef Pieper
(Notre Dame, 1966) [1955]
74 p.

This small book belongs to a series which Josef Pieper wrote on each of the cardinal and theological virtues. In it, as in the others, his purpose was not to make an original contribution to the subject, but rather to summarize  central claims of the Western tradition of moral philosophy. As always, Pieper’s lodestone is St. Thomas Aquinas (himself so often a superb reference for classical and medieval sources), but he does not neglect the modern period.

Stated briefly, justice is “the notion that each man is to be given what is his due”. As such, justice is dependent on a prior determination of what is or is not due to a person, and, even more basically, on the notion that something can be due to a person, that a person can have a “right” to something which another is obligated to respect. The tradition states that a thing can be due to a person either by convention (due to legal agreements, promises, and so on) or naturally (that is, independent of any particular legal body or political system). The idea of a “natural right” underlies the contemporary discussion about human rights in international affairs.

One to whom something is due must be the sort of thing that can claim a right. It makes little sense, for instance, to speak of a moral obligation to a stone or a flower. This implies that we cannot fruitfully speak about justice without a concept of human nature. Our tradition’s principal concept of the human person Pieper summarizes as “a spiritual being, a whole unto itself, a being that exists for itself and of itself, that wills its own perfection” and it is “created a person by the act of God, that is, an act beyond all human discussion.” There is perhaps some ambiguity here as to whether personhood derives principally from our origin (as creatures) or our nature. Pieper seems to argue that our nature makes us capable of claiming rights and of thereby entering the orbit of justice, but our origin, deriving ultimately from a source outside the human community, places limits on the scope of rights derived from convention or authority and provides an opening for natural rights. He quotes Kant: “We have a divine Sovereign, and his divine gift to man is man’s right.”

If justice is to give what is due, then to be just means “to owe something and to pay the debt”. The stress on action here — pay the debt — is appropriate, for justice resides in an external act, not in an intention or disposition. In this, it differs from several other classical virtues, notably temperance and prudence. One may intend to be just, but unless one follows through with the act of justice, one cannot actually be said to be just. Justice is, in this sense, a “public virtue”. Pieper remarks that in the sphere of justice, people rightly regard one another objectively, almost as strangers. And there is a reverse side to the public character of justice: “every external act belongs to the field of justice”.

According to our moral tradition justice is a virtue of higher rank than fortitude or temperance, and this for two principal reasons: first, because it has a wider scope, ordering not only individual lives but also the life of communities, and, second, because while fortitude and temperance are virtues related to the body, having to do with mastering appetites and desires and so forth, justice is spiritual in nature. Moreover, it is quite possible to imagine being very “moral”, in the sense of being self-controlled and courageous, while nonetheless being unjust. (Such, Pieper notes, is the traditional character of the Anti-Christ.) So justice is an essential element in the conduct of a truly moral life.

Pieper identifies three basic forms of justice: reciprocal (the justice one person owes another), distributive (the justice a community owes to individual persons), and legal (the justice individual persons owe to the community). Perhaps because of the post-war context in which he was writing, with the threat of totalitarian governments a matter of constant concern, he focuses most of his discussion on distibutive justice, which is concerned with what the social whole (not specifically the government, note) owes the individual.

We might be tempted to suppose that distributive justice is more or less served in society today by a government-supported welfare system, but Pieper makes a few pointed remarks that call this identification into question. First, he anticipates some comments which Pope Benedict XVI made in Spe Salvi when he states that the nature of distributive justice is endangered when one’s relationship to the community is conceived in impersonal terms, when we think of a “welfare system” operated by bureaucrats rather than a network of personal relationships with a human face. And a second doubt is raised by consideration of the nature of the “communal goods” with which distributive justice is concerned; we are apt to think this means money and other tangible goods, and it does (“food, clothing, shelter, means of communication, care of the sick, education”), but is means more too: “the bonum commune extends far beyond the range of material goods produced by mechanical means” to include the full measure of the human good, spiritual as well as material. It includes knowledge of truth and moral guidance, for instance. If we are looking for a model of what Pieper means I believe that we might advantageously look to the Church rather than to civil society; there, at least, one sees the attempt to minister to the full dignity and capacity of the human person.

An oddity about distributive justice is that it cannot be enforced, for the obligated party is ultimately the authority itself:

Since institutional precautions and controls could entirely prevent the abuse of power only by precluding any form of effective authority, there is nothing and no one that can restrain the man of power from doing injustice — if not his own sense of justice. In the affairs of this world, everything depends on the rulers’ being just.

This provides a good reason to hold those in authority to high moral standards, and the greater the authority the higher the standard.

The closing sections of the book take up a rich theme: the limits of justice. There are, of course, some debts which are not paid, some obligations which are not met in this life. A secular account of justice must concede that the reign of justice is only partial and incomplete, for sometimes injustice carries the day. A religious account — or at least a Christian account — extends the reign of justice so that it is ultimately triumphant: those injustices which appear to triumph in this life are themselves judged by the ultimate justice of God.

Yet in addition to debts which, for one reason or another, are not paid, there are some debts which cannot be paid, some obligations which, by their very nature, cannot be met, and these mark out additional limits on the domain of justice. Such limits are especially evident in a person’s relationship to God, for each person receives his or her very being from God, and no repayment can ever be adequate to this gift.

Now the work of divine justice always presupposes the work of mercy; and is founded thereon.” This must not be taken to be merely an edifying thought. It is a very precise description of man’s condition in the face of God. Before any subsequent claim is made by men, indeed even before the mere possibility of a human claim arises, comes the fact that man has been made a gift by God (of his being) such that his nature cannot ever “make it good,” discharge it, “deserve” it, or return it again. Man can never say to God: “We are even.”

And divine justice must be understood in another way as well, for if justice means “to owe something and to pay the debt”, then God cannot, in this sense, be called just, for he owes nothing. Unfortunately Pieper does not elaborate on this question of what it means to say that God is just — only, as above, that his justice is allied to mercy.

Pieper argues that the practice of religious sacrifice is rooted in this same basic inability to give adequate thanks for the gift of being. No human effort can ever overcome the debt. When Hector pours his wine on the ground to honour the gods, or when a priest offers an unblemished lamb to the altar, or when a pilgrim sets out in a spirit of humble trust in God, the very extravagance of the act highlights its inadequacy:

Helplessness and impotency prompt this extravagance; because it is impossible to do what “properly” ought to be done, an effort beyond the bounds of reason, as it were, tries to compensate for the insufficiency.

Religious sacrifice is thus seen, from this perspective, to be rooted in justice. (I am aware of other accounts of the nature and significance of religious sacrifice, but this is one which I have not considered before.) The same is true of piety, and for much the same reason: St. Thomas says that “It is not possible to make to one’s parents an equal return of what one owes to them; and thus piety is annexed to justice.”


This is a very good book. It is potent and concentrated, as Pieper’s books usually are.

I close with a few aphorisms lifted from the text, several of which are paraphrases or quotations from St. Thomas:


Thomas, via Seneca: “A person who wants to repay a gift too quickly with a gift in return is an unwilling debtor and an ungrateful person.” (ST, II, II, 106, 4)

Thomas: “Creation itself is not an act of justice; creation is not anyone’s due.”

“The common good requires every individual to be good.”

St. Thomas: “The purpose of power is to realize justice.”

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, 2013

January 28, 2013


I like to do something to honour the feast of St. Thomas every year (2012, 2011, 2010, 2009). This year the day has snuck up on me, so I’ll simply use what I have at hand. I have been reading — or trying to read, really — Etienne Gilson’s Being and Some Philosophers, in which St. Thomas’ metaphysics of being has a starring role. Here is a passage I highlighted:

This is a cardinal point in the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas. To posit substance as the proper receiver of existence (proprium susceptivum ejus quod est esse) is not to posit it as a “container” into which existence has but to flow in order to make it be. So long as there is no existence, there is no receptacle to receive it. Existence is here fulfilling an entirely different function. As we have already described it, the substance is “that which” exists, and it is quod est in virtue of its form. Form then is ultimate act in the order of substantiality. In other words, there is no form of the form. Consequently, should we have to ascribe “to be” or “is” to a form, it could not be considered as a form of that form. No point could be more clearly stated than is this one in the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas.

My emphases. Maybe I am just not getting enough sleep these days, but I’ll give a special prize to anyone who can state this a little more clearly.

In the meantime, here is something edifying: my friend Adam Hincks, S.J. has posted a short reflection on the principal lessons he learned from a recent course he took on Thomistic metaphysics: What I Learned from St. Thomas Aquinas.

Saward: The Beauty of Holiness

March 12, 2012

The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty
Art, Sanctity, and the Truth of Catholicism
John Saward
(Ignatius, 1997)
200 p.

The inability of so much modern thought to deal adequately with aesthetics has long served me as a motive for skepticism about its adequacy in general. When the early modern philosophers stripped the world of beauty, stuffing whatever glory and splendour we might encounter into our skulls, rendering it (according to taste) a private judgment or chemical frisson, they entered upon a metaphysical landscape from which, unless I am mistaken, few of the leading modern thinkers have returned. Speaking for myself, I have not been able to follow with any confidence; my efforts to think ‘rightly’ about such matters have all ended in failure. Beauty is real, it seems to me, and it is important to a life well-lived, much as goodness and truth are. A famous passage from von Balthasar resonates with me:

We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether he admits it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.

Encouraged by such statements, I have tried, in my typically middling way, to be open and attentive to beauty. Since modernity has not been able to provide a theoretical ground for this practice, I have naturally sought intellectual foundations elsewhere. Beauty was taken more seriously by ancient and medieval thinkers. John Saward, in the process of developing a theological understanding of aesthetics, nicely illustrates the contrast by comparing the views of pre-eminent representatives of the medieval and modern traditions:

St. Thomas regards beauty as a property of being, a feature of reality, whereas the Enlightenment makes it a colourful subjective ‘value’ pasted over the penny-plain objective ‘fact’. For Kant, to say that the San Marco altarpiece is beautiful is merely to voice one’s feeling of pleasure at seeing the San Marco altarpiece; nothing in the painting corresponds to the judgement. By contrast, for Thomas, a thing is not beautiful because it is loved; it is loved because it is beautiful. Our minds through our senses perceive the beauty of Angelico’s altarpiece; they do not produce it. Beauty is not read into works of art, God’s and men’s; it radiates out of them. As Gerard Manley Hopkins says, it ‘keeps warm / Men’s wits to the things that are’.

That, I think, sums up the difference rather nicely, and also (I trust) conveys the attractiveness of the Thomist view. It is evident that Thomas’ understanding of beauty requires a vastly different, and far richer, metaphysics than modernity has typically been willing, or able, to sustain.

The purpose of John Saward’s book is, in part, to present the pre-modern (and, more specifically, Thomist) philosophy of beauty, and to unfold its many intimate connections to theology. Understood theologically, beauty — like everything else that is good — ultimately has its source in God, and Saward’s special theme, as the title of his book indicates, is to explore how the beauty of God shines forth in two particular ways: through holy lives and through sacred art. In doing so he picks up on something which Pope Benedict, then still a Cardinal, once said:

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with the beauty in her liturgies, the beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No. Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place where beauty — and hence truth — is at home.

(This quotation actually serves as epigraph to Saward’s book, suggesting that it may have been the seed from which the book itself has grown.)

In developing this theme of beauty in Christian lives and art, Saward turns, naturally enough, to one of those in whom both aspects were manifest: Beato Angelico. A significant part of the book is devoted to a close study of his San Marco altarpiece, not from an art historical perspective, but in order to unpack the many ways in which the painting illustrates the Catholic tradition’s theological understanding of beauty and holiness.

Holiness and beauty are united in an exemplary, if not quite preeminent, way in the Blessed Virgin Mary. She has greater moral beauty than any other created being, and, in agreement with Saward’s motivating concept, Christian tradition has piously put her at the center of its artistic tradition, portraying her as lovely to behold, ‘the most beautiful lady’. Her beauty illuminates all that it touches. Saward devotes a good deal of attention to this fact, tracing Our Lady’s influence upon our music, architecture, and literature, and exploring the theological reasons for it.

In the final section of the book Saward turns to the special class of saints who lost their lives for the faith. He argues that persecution and martyrdom in the Church have frequently called forth beautiful art, citing, for instance, the cases of Robert Southwell and William Byrd in the wake of Edmund Campion’s martyrdom, or Bernanos’ Dialogues of the Carmelites after the French Revolution. Conversely, Saward observes that very often persecution and heresy are combined with iconoclasm, an assault on the faithful and on Church teaching being paired with an assault on her art. This was so during the English Reformation, in Calvin’s Geneva, in the French Revolution, and, more recently, in Communist nations. That such things occur together is not surprising, for Christian art is an expression of Christian thought and devotion, and it is an arguable point whether such iconclasm constitutes an assault on beauty per se. Yet the spectacle of someone defacing art of such great beauty is unseemly, at the very least, and, contends Saward, is fruitfully suggestive of a deeper conflict.

The Holiness of Beauty is a rewarding read, with considerably more in it than I, at any rate, was able to glean on one reading. It comes bedecked with laudatory blurbs from the likes of Aidan Nichols, Stratford Caldecott, Thomas Howard, and even Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. If you like those authors, you will probably like this as well. The writing is quite dense, but not overly scholarly, and is frequently beautiful. On numerous occasions I paused, at length, over an arresting thought or elegant turn of phrase, and it occurred to me that certain sections of the book might well serve as fodder for lectio divina. The theology is, as far as I could detect, thoroughly orthodox. Part of me wishes that the theological material was not couched so thoroughly in Thomist language — surely a theme as foundational as this could be expressed in other ways — and all of me wishes that I had understood the theological basics more clearly than I did, but these are minor complaints. It is a good book.


Some quotations:

‘When sundered from beauty, truth becomes a correctness without splendour and goodness a value of no delight.’

‘Christ is beautiful, and he comes to restore us to beauty.’

‘The creature intent on glorifying itself resents the Creator who humbled himself.’

‘The man who would venerate the holy icons must gaze with the loving attention of a child, not the peering curiosity of the connoisseur.’

‘Positivism, materialism, atheism — these are the great deadly enemies of art, for they blind a man to the wealth and wonder of being. It was from all such rude reductions of reality that William Blake asked to be delivered when he prayed, ‘May God us keep / From single vision and Newton’s sleep’.’

‘Every true love has the inner form of a vow.’ (Balthasar)

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, 2011

January 28, 2011

To mark St. Thomas’ feast, here are a few aphorisms drawn from his writings.

  • Every being naturally loves God more than itself. (ST I, 60, 5 ad 1)
  • Sin is nothing other than falling away from the good which is fitting to one’s nature. (ST I-II, 109, 2 ad 2)
  • Evil is never loved except under the aspect of good; that is to say, in so far as it is truly a good in some particular respect, but is conceived as absolutely good. (ST I-II, 27, 1 ad 1)
  • God is one in reality but multiple according to our minds; we know him in as many ways as created things represent him. (ST I, 13, 4 ad 3)
  • To know God in a created likeness is not to know the essence of God. (ST I, 12, 4 ad 1)

More from the same fount, from 2010 and 2009.

Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, 2010

January 28, 2010

Here are several brief thoughts from St. Thomas, culled from Josef Pieper’s The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas: A Breviary of Philosophy:

  • Since the soul is only a part of human nature, it does not possess its natural perfection except in union with the body. (Spir. creat. 2 ad 5.)
  • A devil knows the nature of human thought better than a man does. (Mal. 16, 8 ad 7.)
  • Wherever there is intellectual knowledge, there is also free will. (ST I, 59, 3.)
  • Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe, to know what he ought to desire, and to know what he ought to do. ( (princ.))
  • The nature of virtue lies in good more than in difficulty. (ST II-II, 123, 12 ad 2.)

Last year’s batch.