Wednesday, March 7, 2007

On the contrary

As I await the green light from the supervisor to print and submit the thesis, I have been reading the deliciously funny letters of Flannery O'Connor. O'Connor was a strange and awkward novelist of the deep South of the USA, an authentic realist and not, thanks be to God, a materialistic determinist. But her letters reveal a much more bemused and whimsical mind than can be guessed at from her dark novels. Living as a lupus-ridden invalid on a peacock farm in Georgia did as much for her sense of absurdity as for her novelist's eye. Consider this passage about her reading St Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica:

I read the Summa for about twenty minutes every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during this process and say, "Turn off that light. It's late," I with lifted finger and broad, bland, beatific expression, would reply, "On the contrary, I answer that the light being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes".

To get the joke, you have to know a bit about Aquinas's argumentation style, which follows in fact the classic scholastic model. First, introduce your objections with Videtur quod - it seems that. I still think it a hoot that one of the first assertions made by this most pious of intellectuals in his Summa is 'It seems that God does not exist'. This sort of patient reasonableness seems far warmer and kinder than the shrill and brittle voices that howl down Thomas's philosophy. I discover the same thing in Benedict XVI's capacity to spend four pages explaining what his opponent thinks before arguing against it. On the streets, they'd call this 'respect'. In any case, when Thomas has finished elucidating his objections, he turns the argument around with sed contra, 'on the contrary', whence Flannery O'Connor's joke.

Many of the Thomas stories are amusing. Having finally found an answer to a troublesome philosophical problem, he silenced King Louis's banquet hall by absent-mindedly thumping the table and shouting in triumph, 'That's how to answer the Manichaens!' On another occasion, falling once again into a metaphysical revery, he consumed an entire bowl of heavily salted olives that nobody else at table would touch. Curiously, this man who barely noticed what he was eating also composed the Eucharistic poem Lauda Sion, which Dante Alighieri said he would have given his hind teeth to have written.

For me, what remains shattering about Thomas's thought is his capacity to see a distinction that is essential and without which you run into trouble. Nowhere is this truer than in the notion of 'order'. Thomas says quite simply that at a human level order comes from two sources:

- exterior order in law
- interior order in virtue

It is obvious - at least once you have seen it made - but it still passes comment on so much in society. Like all the greats, Aquinas is a perennial contemporary. We live now in the age of societalization where order, and many other things beside, are subsummed into politics. Politicians seem to justify their existence by legislation. Societal problems must be solved by passing new laws. You cannot, of course, argue against the practicalities of organizing a large modern state - even if some people say you can - but it is rarely mentioned that the elaboration and hardening of the means of exterior order often leave interior order way behind. Totalitarianism suppresses the individual but societalization castrates him. Totalitarianism aims to make him into a pack horse but societalization promises to turn him into a sterile mule. Liberty without virtue is the right way to inflate the state. Not even footocracy could save us from that.

The unfashionableness of interior order might have something to do nowadays with the cult of celebrity. The more we have reduced interior order to a puritain indulgence, the more we have become obsessed with superficial physicality. I do wonder whether one of the general psychological consequences of societalization is a greater propensity for vicarious living, inviting us to see in media figures the kinds of individual qualities that order cannot do without. Hero worship in all societies could easily be related to the same thing; it is not necessarily a pathological condition. But I wonder if a society reveals something about itself through the conduct of the individuals it elevates into its avatars. I also wonder if a society also reveals something about itself through the conduct of the people it wants to drag down.

On the contrary, sed contra, I'll stick with my O'Connors and Aquinases. The amused and the absentminded seem so much healthier than the cool and the bejewelled.