Saint Thomas Aquinas: "The Dumb Ox" by G.K. Chesterton
By Charles R. Geter, June 5, 2008
Publication Information: Published by Doubleday, 1956 (written 1933)
In St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton aims to give his readers a sketch of Aquinas, and his aim is for it to "lead those who have hardly even heard of St. Thomas Aquinas to read about him in better books."
Chesterton wrote this biography with the knowledge that many non-Christians would read it, and so he did not try to "heathenize" Aquinas for their comfort, but instead he works to explain the basics of St. Thomas's philosophy, and at the same time he gives an outline of Aquinas that even non-Christians can follow. He compares Aquinas with St. Francis in his first chapter, and in each new chapter he deals with another aspect of St. Thomas's life, whether it be his philosophy, major events in his life, or his personality. The last chapter concerns Martin Luther and how his heretical beliefs were so opposed to the philosophy of Aquinas. In the end, the conclusion of Chesterton is that the philosophical explorations of St. Thomas in the Middle Ages was more advanced than the Renaissance, and most all that followed it. His point is that Aquinas's philosophy was a thrust in an entirely new direction, while the Renaissance was just a revival of an old and dead thing.
G.K. Chesterton is one of the most brilliant and influential Catholic writers of the 20th Century. His biography of St. Thomas Aquinas is exciting to read not solely because of Chesterton's wit and skill with the pen, but also because of the great man about whom he is writing. The excellence of this book is that it gives the reader an especially vivid picture of Aquinas and the basics of his philosophy. The format of this book differs from the usual biography of a Saint; the life of St. Thomas is not laid out here for us in the manner of a set of dates. Rather than bore us with yet another outline of Aquinas' earthly life, Chesterton shows us an outline of his mind. Do not misunderstand me; he does write about the actual man, and not just his philosophy. Imagine a movie where there are 4 separate plots being told, yet by the end all the characters have connected in some way, and the seemingly disjointed plot has developed into a brilliant story. That will give you an idea of how Saint Thomas Aquinas is structured; yet the beauty of his writing is noticeable from the very beginning of the book.
The great thing about this book is that it gives some insight into the philosophy of St. Thomas, but with comparative simplicity, so that you can "get your feet wet" without getting lost. I will admit that while Chesterton's book is not an easy read, it is firmly, almost perfectly ground in the intermediate level. Anyone who is willing to put in a little effort should be able to understand the content of this book, and get something good out of it. One thing that I found interesting was that St. Thomas Aquinas disagreed often with St. Augustine. I never really thought about the idea that one Saint could disagree strongly with another Saint. Come on, they're both in heaven, right? But St. Thomas did in fact disagree with Augustine, whose medieval followers thought that their wisdom came entirely from within, while St. Thomas Aquinas wanted to show that Faith and Reason were both needed. Revelation can guide man, but Reason alone could not do this. What Reason can and should do is prepare men to receive Faith. Reason also should be used to express tenets of the Faith in a scientific manner. And lastly, Reason should be used by Christians to defend their Faith. Chesterton shows with aplomb that St. Thomas Aquinas' philosophy is really the most advanced we know of; that after the Protestant Reformation there was some regression in philosophy, and the prevalent philosophers of the 1900s who suggest that we don't even know if we exist, are really ages behind Aquinas in their thinking. And this needs to be said, because philosophies of the 1900s can be dangerous because of their sheer absurdity. There is so much to this book that you can read it over again and look at it more closely, and get more out of it.
There is something about Chesterton's writing; his witty, yet substantive rebuttals to the attacks on Catholicism (or even traditional morality) are always disarming, and he wields his pen like a swordsman, who is skilled at disarming his foes. But his biography of St. Thomas Aquinas gets deeper than simple rebuttals; his genuine interest of and admiration for Aquinas makes him the perfect candidate to write his biography. I can't help but appreciate that he was able to fit such an amazingly deep and fascinating biography into such a small book. Chesterton's "sketch" is compact, but it is so well written and deep that this is in no way a negative point. The majority of what he leaves out is information that we don't need. What we get is simply an excellent, moving biography of a great Saint. I read once that books are more important for what they don't say than what they do say. And that leads me to think that you should never judge a book by its size either. Some books are huge, but they have nothing to say. Let that never be said about Chesterton's "St. Thomas Aquinas".