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An extract from chapter vii, ‘The Permanent Philosophy’, of G K Chesterton’s St Thomas Aquinas (1933) in

which he explains St Thomas’s teaching on being

Download this document as a Link to PDF PDF

I have pointed out that mere modern free-thought has left everything in a fog, including itself.  The assertion that thought is free led first to the denial that will is free; but even about that there was no real determination among the Determinists.  In practice, they told men that they must treat their will as free though it was not free.  In other words, Man must live a double life; which is exactly the old heresy of Siger of Brabant about the Double Mind.  In other words the nineteenth century left everything in chaos; and the importance of Thomism in the twentieth century is that it may give us back a cosmos.  We can give here only the rudest sketch of how Aquinas, like the Agnostics, beginning in the cosmic cellars, yet climbed to the cosmic towers.


   Without pretending to span within such limits the essential Thomist idea, I may be allowed to throw out a sort of rough version of the fundamental question, which I think I have known myself, consciously or unconsciously, since my childhood.  When a child looks out of the nursery window and sees anything, say the green lawn of the garden, what does he actually know; or does he know anything?  There are all sorts of nursery games of negative philosophy played around this question.  A brilliant Victorian scientist delighted in declaring that the child does not see any grass at all; but only a sort of green mist reflected in a tiny mirror of the human eye.  This piece of rationalism has always struck me as almost insanely irrational.  If he is not sure of the existence of the grass, which he sees through the glass of a window, how on earth can he be sure of the existence of the retina, which he sees through the glass of a microscope?  If sight deceives, why can it not go on deceiving?


Men of another school answer that grass is a mere green impression on the mind; and that the child can be sure of nothing except the mind.  They declare that he can be conscious of his own consciousness; which happens to be the one thing that we know the child is not conscious of at all.  In that sense, it would be far truer to say that there is grass and no child, than to say that there is a conscious child but no grass.  St Thomas Aquinas, suddenly intervening in this nursery quarrel, says emphatically that the child is aware of Ens.  Long before he knows that grass is grass, or self is self, he knows that something is something.  Perhaps it would be best to say very emphatically (with a blow on the table), ‘There is an Is’.  That is as much monkish credulity as St Thomas asks of us at the start.  Very few unbelievers start by asking us to believe so little.  And yet, upon this sharp pinpoint of reality, he rears by long logical processes that have really never been successfully overthrown, the whole cosmic system of Christendom.


   Thus, Aquinas insists very profoundly, but very practically, that there instantly enters, with this idea of affirmation, the idea of contradiction.  It is instantly apparent, even to the child, that there cannot be both affirmation and contradiction.  Whatever you call the thing he sees, a lawn or a mirage or a sensation or a state of consciousness, when he sees it, he knows it is not true that he does not see it.  Or whatever you call what he is supposed to be doing, seeing or dreaming or being conscious of an impression, he knows that if he is doing it, it is a lie to say he is not doing it.  Therefore there has already entered something beyond even the first fact of being; there follows it like its shadow the first fundamental creed or commandment; that a thing cannot be and not be.


   Henceforth, in common or popular language, there is a false and true.  I say in popular language, because Aquinas is nowhere more subtle than in pointing out that being is not strictly the same as truth; seeing truth must mean the appreciation of being by some mind capable of appreciating it.  But in a general sense there has entered the primeval world of pure actuality, the division and dilemma that brings the ultimate sort of war into the world; the everlasting duel between Yes and No.  This is the dilemma that many sceptics have darkened the universe and dissolved the mind, solely in order to escape.  They are those who maintain that there is something that is both Yes and No.  I do not know whether they pronounce it Yo.


   The next step following on this acceptance of actuality or certainty, or whatever we call it in popular language, is much more difficult to explain in that language.  But it represents exactly the point at which nearly all other systems go wrong; and in taking the third step abandon the first.  Aquinas has affirmed that our first sense of fact is a fact; and he cannot go back on it without falsehood.  But when we come to look at the fact or facts, as we know them, we observe that they have a rather queer character, which has made many moderns grow strangely and restlessly skeptical about them.  For instance, they are largely in a state of change, from being one thing to being another; or their qualities are relative to other things; or they appear to move incessantly; or they appear to vanish entirely.  At this point, as I say, many sages lose hold of the first principle of reality, which they would concede at first and fall back on saying that there is nothing except change; or nothing except comparison; or nothing except flux; or in effect that there is nothing at all.  Aquinas turns the whole argument the other way, keeping in line with his first realisation of reality.  There is no doubt about the being of being, even if it does sometimes look like becoming; that is because what we see is not the fullness of being; or (to continue a sort of colloquial slang) we never see being being as much as it can.  Ice is melted into cold water and cold water is heated into hot water; it cannot be all three at once.  But this does not make water unreal or even relative; it only means that its being is limited to being one thing at a time.  But the fullness of being is everything that it can be; and without it the lesser or approximate forms of being cannot be explained as anything; unless they are explained away as nothing.


   This crude outline can only at the best be historical rather than philosophical.  It is impossible to compress into it the metaphysical proofs of such an idea; especially in the mediaeval metaphysical language.  But this distinction in philosophy is tremendous as a turning point in history.  Most thinkers, on realising the apparent mutability of being, have really forgotten their own realisation of the being, and believed only in the mutability.  They cannot even say that a thing changes into another thing; for them there is no instant in the process at which it is a thing at all.  It is only a change.  It would be more logical to call it nothing changing into nothing, than to say (on these principles) that there ever was or will be a moment when the thing is itself.  St Thomas maintains that the ordinary thing at any moment is something; but it is not everything that it could be.  There is a fullness of being, in which it could be everything that it can be.  Thus, while most sages come at last to nothing but naked change, he comes to the ultimate thing that is unchangeable, because it is all the other things at once.  While they describe a change which is really a change in nothing, he describes a changelessness which includes the changes of everything.  Things change because they are not complete; but their reality can only be explained as part of something that is complete.  It is God.


   Historically, at least, it was around this sharp and crooked corner that all the sophists have followed each other, while the great Schoolman went up the high road of experience and expansion; to the beholding of cities; to the building of cities.  They all failed at this early stage because, in the words of the old game, they took away the number they first thought of.  The recognition of something, of a thing or things, is the first act of the intellect.  But because the examination of a thing shows it is not a fixed or final thing, they inferred that there was nothing fixed or final.  Thus, in various ways, they all began to see a thing as something thinner than a thing; a wave, a weakness; an abstract instability.  St Thomas, to use the same rude figure, saw a thing that was thicker than a thing; that was even more solid than the solid but secondary facts he had started by admitting as facts.  Since we know them to be real, any elusive or bewildering element in their reality cannot really be unreality; and must be merely their relation to the real reality.  A hundred human philosophies, ranging over the earth from Nominalism to Nirvana and Maya, from formless Evolutionism to mindless Quietism, all come from this first break in the Thomist chain; the notion that, because what we see does not satisfy us, or explain itself, it is not even what we see.  That cosmos is a contradiction in terms and strangles itself; but Thomism cuts itself free.  The defect we see, in what is, is simply that it is not all that is.  God is more actual even than Man; more actual even than Matter; for God with all His powers at every instant is immortally in action.


   A cosmic comedy of a very curious sort occurred recently; involving the views of very brilliant men, such as Mr Bernard Shaw and the Dean of St Paul’s.  Briefly, freethinkers of many sorts had often said they had no need of a Creation, because the cosmos had always existed and always would exist.  Mr Bernard Shaw said he had become an atheist because the universe had gone on making itself from the beginning, or without a beginning; Dean Inge later displayed consternation at the very idea that the universe could have an end.  Most modern Christians, living by tradition where mediaeval Christians could live by logic and reason, vaguely felt that it was a dreadful idea to deprive them of the Day of Judgment.  Most modern agnostics (who are delighted to have their ideas called dreadful) cried out all the more, with one accord, that the self-producing, self-existent, truly scientific universe had never needed to have a beginning and could not come to an end.


   At this very instant, quite suddenly, like the look-out man on a ship who shouts a warning about a rock, the real man of science, the expert who was examining the facts, announced in a loud voice that the universe was coming to an end.[1]  He had not been listening, of course, to the talk of the amateurs; he had been actually examining the texture of the matter; and he said it was disintegrating; the world was apparently blowing itself up by a gradual explosion called energy; the whole business would certainly have an end and had presumably had a beginning.  This was very shocking indeed; not to the orthodox, but rather specially to the unorthodox, who are rather more easily shocked.  Dean Inge, who had been lecturing the orthodox for years on their stern duty of accepting all scientific discoveries, positively wailed aloud over this truly tactless scientific discovery; and practically implored the scientific discoverers to go away and discover something different.  It seems almost incredible; but it is a fact that he asked what God would have to amuse Him, if the universe ceased.  That is a measure of how much the modern mind needs Thomas Aquinas.  But even without Aquinas, I can hardly conceive any educated man, let alone such a learned man, believing in God at all without assuming that God contains in Himself every perfection including eternal joy; and does not require the solar system to entertain Him like a circus.


   To step out of these presumptions, prejudices and private disappointments, into the real world of St Thomas, is like escaping from a scuffle in a dark room into the broad daylight.  St Thomas says, quite straightforwardly, that he himself believes this world has a beginning and end; because such seems to be the teaching of the Church; the validity of which mystical message to mankind he defends elsewhere with dozens of quite different arguments.  Anyhow, the Church said the world would end, and apparently the Church was right; always supposing (as we are always supposed to suppose) that the latest men of science are right.  But Aquinas says he sees no particular reason, in reason, why this world should not be a world without end; or even without beginning.  And he is quite certain that, if it were entirely without end or beginning, there would still be exactly the same logical need of a Creator.  Anybody who does not see that, he gently implies, does not really understand what is meant by a Creator.


   For what St Thomas means is not a mediaeval picture of an old king; but this second step in the great argument about Ens or being; the second point which is so desperately difficult to put correctly in popular language.  That is why I have introduced it here in the particular form of the argument that there must be a Creator even if there is no Day of Creation.  Looking at Being as it is now, as the baby looks at the grass, we see a second thing about it; in quite popular language, it looks secondary and dependent.  Existence exists; but it is not sufficiently self-existent; and would never become so by going on existing.  The same primary sense which tells us it is Being, tells us it is not perfect Being; not merely imperfect in the popular controversial sense of containing sin or sorrow; but imperfect as Being; less actual than the actuality it implies.  For instance, its Being is often only Becoming; beginning to Be or ceasing to Be; it implies a more constant or complete thing of which it gives in itself no example.  That is the meaning of that basic mediaeval phrase ‘Everything [that moves] is moved by another’; which, in the clear subtlety of St Thomas, means inexpressibly more than the mere Deistic ‘somebody wound up the clock’ with which it is probably often confounded.


   Anyone who thinks deeply will see that motion has about it an essential incompleteness, which approximates to something more complete.  The actual argument is rather technical; and concerns the fact that [potency] does not explain itself; moreover, in any case unfolding must be of something folded.  Suffice it to say that the mere modern evolutionists, who would ignore the argument, do not do so because they have discovered any flaw in the argument; for they have never discovered the argument itself.  They do so because they are too shallow to see the flaw in their own argument; for the weakness of their thesis is covered by fashionable phraseology, as the strength of the old thesis is covered by old-fashioned phraseology.  But, for those who really think, there is always something really unthinkable about the whole evolutionary cosmos, as they conceive it; because it is something coming out of nothing; an ever-increasing flood of water pouring out of an empty jug.  Those who can simply accept that, without even seeing the difficulty, are not likely to go so deep as Aquinas and see the solution of his difficulty.  In a word, the world does not explain itself, and cannot do so merely by continuing to expand itself.  But anyhow it is absurd for the Evolutionist to complain that it is unthinkable for an admittedly unthinkable God to make everything out of nothing; and then pretend that it is more thinkable that nothing should turn itself into everything.


   We have seen that most philosophers simply fail to philosophise about things because they change; they also fail to philosophise about things because they differ.  We have no space to follow St Thomas through all these negative heresies; but a word must be said about Nominalism, or the doubt founded on things that differ.  Everyone knows that the Nominalist declared that things differ too much to be really classified; so that they are only labelled.  Aquinas was a firm but moderate Realist, and therefore held that there really are general qualities; as that human beings are human, and other paradoxes.  To be an extreme Realist would have taken him too near to being a Platonist.  He recognised that individuality is real, but said that it coexists with a common character making some generalisation possible; in fact, as in most things, he said exactly what all common sense would say, if no intelligent heretics had ever disturbed it.  Nevertheless, they still continue to disturb it.  I remember when Mr H. G. Wells had an alarming fit of Nominalist philosophy, and poured forth book after book to argue that everything is unique and untypical; as that a man is so much an individual that he is not even a man.  It is a quaint and almost comic fact, that this chaotic negation especially attracts those who are always complaining of social chaos, and who propose to replace it by the most sweeping social regulations.  It is the very men, who say that nothing can be classified, who say that everything must be codified.  Thus Mr Bernard Shaw said that the only golden rule is that there is no golden rule.  He prefers an iron rule; as in Russia.


   But this is only a small inconsistency in some moderns as individuals. There is a much deeper inconsistency in them as theorists in relation to the general theory called Creative Evolution.  They seem to imagine that they avoid the metaphysical doubt about mere change by assuming (it is not very clear why) that the change will always be for the better.  But the mathematical difficulty of finding a corner in a curve is not altered by turning the chart upside down, and saying that a downward curve is now an upward curve.  The point is that there is no point in the curve; no place at which we have a logical right to say that the curve has reached its climax, or revealed its origin, or come to its end.  It makes no difference that they choose to be cheerful about it, and say, "It is enough that there is always a beyond"; instead of lamenting, like the more realistic poets of the past, over the tragedy of mere Mutability.  It is not enough that there is always a beyond; because it might be beyond bearing.  Indeed the only defence of this view is that sheer boredom is such an agony, that any movement is a relief.  But the truth is that they have never read St. Thomas, or they would find, with no little terror, that they really agree with him.  What they really mean is that change is not mere change; but is the unfolding of something; and if it is thus unfolded, though the unfolding takes twelve million years, it must be there already.  In other words, they agree with Aquinas that there is everywhere [potency] that has not reached its end in act.


   But if it is a definite [potency], and if it can only end in a definite act, why then there is a Great Being, in whom all [potencies] already exist as a plan of action.  In other words, it is impossible even to say that the change is for the better, unless the best exists somewhere, both before and after the change.  Otherwise it is indeed mere change, as the blankest sceptics or the blackest pessimists would see it.  Suppose two entirely new paths open before the progress of Creative Evolution.  How is the evolutionist to know which Beyond is the better; unless he accepts from the past and present some standard of the best?  By their superficial theory everything can change; everything can improve, even the nature of improvement.  But in their submerged common sense, they do not really think that an ideal of kindness could change to an ideal of cruelty.  It is typical of them that they will sometimes rather timidly use the word Purpose; but blush at the very mention of the word Person.


   St. Thomas is the very reverse of anthropomorphic, in spite of his shrewdness as an anthropologist.  Some theologians have even claimed that he is too much of an agnostic; and has left the nature of God too much of an intellectual abstraction.  But we do not need even St. Thomas, we do not need anything but our own common sense, to tell us that if there has been from the beginning anything that can possibly be called a Purpose, it must reside in something that has the essential elements of a Person.  There cannot be an intention hovering in the air all by itself, any more than a memory that nobody remembers or a joke that nobody has made.  The only chance for those supporting such suggestions is to take refuge in blank and bottomless irrationality; and even then it is impossible to prove that anybody has any right to be unreasonable, if St. Thomas has no right to be reasonable.


   In a sketch that aims only at the baldest simplification, this does seem to me the simplest truth about St. Thomas the philosopher.  He is one, so to speak, who is faithful to his first love; and it is love at first sight.  I mean that he immediately recognised a real quality in things; and afterwards resisted all the disintegrating doubts arising from the nature of those things.  That is why I emphasise, even in the first few pages, the fact that there is a sort of purely Christian humility and fidelity underlying his philosophic realism.  St. Thomas could as truly say, of having seen merely a stick or a stone, what St. Paul said of having seen the rending of the secret heavens, "I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision".  For though the stick or the stone is an earthly vision, it is through them that St. Thomas finds his way to heaven; and the point is that he is obedient to the vision; he does not go back on it.  Nearly all the other sages who have led or misled mankind do, on one excuse or another, go back on it.  They dissolve the stick or the stone in chemical solutions of scepticism; either in the medium of mere time and change; or in the difficulties of classification of unique units; or in the difficulty of recognising variety while admitting unity.  The first of these three is called debate about flux or formless transition; the second is the debate about Nominalism and Realism, or the existence of general ideas; the third is called the ancient metaphysical riddle of the One and the Many.  But they can all be reduced under a rough image to this same statement about St. Thomas.  He is still true to the first truth and refusing the first treason.  He will not deny what he has seen, though it be a secondary and diverse reality.  He will not take away the numbers he first thought of, though there may be quite a number of them.


   He has seen grass; and will not say he has not seen grass, because it today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven.  That is the substance of all scepticism about change, transition, transformism and the rest.  He will not say that there is no grass but only growth.  If grass grows and withers, it can only mean that it is part of a greater thing, which is even more real; not that the grass is less real than it looks.  St. Thomas has a really logical right to say, in the words of the modern mystic, A. E.: "I begin by the grass to be bound again to the Lord".[2]


   He has seen grass and grain; and he will not say that they do not differ, because there is something common to grass and grain.  Nor will he say that there is nothing common to grass and grain, because they do really differ.  He will not say, with the extreme Nominalists, that because grain can be differentiated into all sorts of fruitage, or grass trodden into mire with any kind of weed, therefore there can be no classification to distinguish weeds from slime or to draw a fine distinction between cattle-food and cattle.  He will not say with the extreme Platonists, on the other hand, that he saw the perfect fruit in his own head by shutting his eyes, before he saw any difference between grain and grass.  He saw one thing and then another thing and then a common quality; but he does not really pretend that he saw the quality before the thing.


   He has seen grass and gravel; that is to say, he has seen things really different; things not classified together like grass and grains.  The first flash of fact shows us a world of really strange things, not merely strange to us, but strange to each other.  The separate things need have nothing in common except Being.  Everything is Being; but it is not true that everything is Unity.  It is here, as I have said, that St. Thomas does definitely, one might say defiantly, part company with the Pantheist and Monist.  All things are; but among the things that are is the thing called difference, quite as much as the thing called similarity.  And here again we begin to be bound again to the Lord, not only by the universality of grass, but by the incompatibility of grass and gravel.  For this world of different and varied beings is especially the world of the Christian Creator; the world of created things, like things made by an artist; as compared with the world that is only one thing, with a sort of shimmering and shifting veil of misleading change; which is the conception of so many of the ancient religions of Asia and the modern sophistries of Germany.  In the face of these, St. Thomas still stands stubborn in the same obstinate objective fidelity.  He has seen grass and gravel; and he is not disobedient to the heavenly vision.


   To sum up; the reality of things, the mutability of things, the diversity of things, and all other such things that can be attributed to things, is followed carefully by the medieval philosopher, without losing touch with the original point of the reality.  There is no space in this book to specify the thousand steps of thought by which he shows that he is right.  But the point is that, even apart from being right he is real.  He is a realist in a rather curious sense of his own, which is a third thing, distinct from the almost contrary mediaeval and modern meanings of the word.  Even the doubts and difficulties about reality have driven him to believe in more reality rather than less.  The deceitfulness of things which has had so sad an effect on so many sages, has almost a contrary effect on this sage.  If things deceive us, it is by being more real than they seem.  As ends in themselves they always deceive us; but as things tending to a greater end, they are even more real than we think them.  If they seem to have a relative unreality (so to speak) it is because they are potential and not actual; they are unfulfilled, like packets of seeds or boxes of fireworks. They have it in them to be more real than they are.  And there is an upper world of what the Schoolman called Fruition, or Fulfilment, in which all this relative relativity becomes actuality; in which the trees burst into flower or the rockets into flame.


   Here I leave the reader, on the very lowest rung of those ladders of logic, by which St. Thomas besieged and mounted the House of Man.  It is enough to say that by arguments as honest and laborious, he climbed up to the turrets and talked with angels on the roofs of gold.  This is, in a very rude outline, his philosophy; it is impossible in such an outline to describe his theology.  Anyone writing so small a book about so big a man, must leave out something.  Those who know him best will best understand why, after some considerable consideration, I have left out the only important thing.

[1]  Possibly Sir Arthur Eddington on the inevitability of the second law of thermodynamics in his The Nature of the Physical Word, 1927.

[2]  George William Russell (1867-1935), an Irish writer who wrote on mysticism and was a follower of theosophy.