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By the rivers of Babylon there we sat and wept, remembering Zion;
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St Dominic


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This is an extract of four pages of analysis by Gilbert Chesterton of St Thomas’s explanation of the central issue in all philosophy.  I have introduced paragraphs into the text which are not in the original to aid the reader’s grasp of what he has to say.  Chesterton explains, earlier in Ch. VI (p. 122 et seq.) why the Latin word Ens has far more force than the English word ‘being’ in signifying the act that every existing thing exercises: “[being] has a wild and woolly sort of sound, as if only very vague people used it, or as if it might mean all sorts of different things”.

MJB – Easter Sunday, 2023



Without pretending to span… the essential Thomist idea, I may… 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 round 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 only be conscious of his own consciousness; which happen 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 not a 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… “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 pin-point of reality, he rears by long logical processes that have never really 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 know 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.  There 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 fulness 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 fulness 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.

… [T]his 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 not an 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 fulness 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…  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 round 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 is 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.”



G. K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas, London, 1933 (reprint Martino Publishing, pp. 133-6), Chapter VII, ‘The Permanent Philosophy’.