Feast Day: November 15th
The venerable philosopher was perplexed. As a certain fall afternoon in the late 1240s slipped by, the
desk room littered with scrolls of all kinds was a good image of his cluttered mind. The great mind had tackled scientific inquiries into genetics and astronomy and chemistry … last month his project was calculating the size and speed of the heavenly spheres, though today his astrolabe was gathering dust rather than measuring the angles of rays of light.
More recently, he had been captivated by the question of whether Plato or Aristotle had come up with a better concept of universals. He had grinned as that philosophical jargon had spiraled around in his head: it was actually a mongrel dog running along the streets of Paris that got him thinking on it. Every child in the city could tell you what a dog was: four legs, one tail, plenty of teeth, and usually a bark worse than their bite. But no such generic dog actually existed: different colors, coats, faces, temperaments, and yes, this one only had 3 legs it turned out, but was undoubtedly a dog… we can conceptualize a “universal” dog, the generic form of a canine but did that form exist above and beyond this world, as Plato thought? Or, was it a concept in his own mind, marvelously instantiated in every one of the critters that trotted past his window?
But today he wasn’t thinking about stars, or spaniels, he was considering the students who had sat before him in class earlier that day. Now a young man, Thomas of Aquino, continued to shine amongst his classmates. The ox whose voice would shake the world, as Albert had wryly nicknamed the husky youngster a few years prior, would soon travel with him to Cologne Germany where they would study and teach there together. But his thoughts weren’t on the students individually, but universally: how, and what, is a human being?
Plato’s voice was at first the loudest: “The soul is most like that which is divine, immortal, intelligible, uniform, indissoluable, and ever self-consistent and invariable, whereas body is most like that which is human, mortal, multiform, unintelligible, dissoluable, and never self-consistent.” Ok, so the eternal ‘side’ of ourselves, the perfect, permanent, most-real, depths of who we are – is the soul – destined to be released from the mortal shell that is our body.
Plato was onto something here, and yet, the greatest philosopher who ever lived, who had also given his life as had Plato’s Socrates, had once said “in the beginning it was not so”, pointing us eternally back to the moment when God had chosen to create man, and smiled as He “saw that it was very good”. Man, soul and body, Jesus had remined us, was very good. What would Plato make of that? That God, perfect, invariable, divine, would choose to create man, not a soul imprisoned in flesh, but a soul incarnate in flesh, and then, when the time had come, to become man Himself, and show man the fullness of his spiritual freedom and dignity?! What a God we have?! What a dignity we have?!
Augustine’s poetry next enkindled Albert’s pondering heart: “You called and shouted: and broke through my deafness. You flamed and shone: and banished my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me: and I drew in my breath and I pant for you. I have tasted you: and now I hunger and thirst for more. You have touched me: and I have burned for your peace.” If we all yearn for God, thirsting for His fire and peace, doesn’t that mean that our souls, just like our bodies, are incomplete here below? This jived with a new philosopher he and Thomas were just now investigating: an ancient Greek thinker named Aristotle. His works had been lost in Europe for centuries, but now, by God’s mysterious providence, had made their way onto his desk – before most anybody else on the continent – through copies received from the Islamic scholar, Avicenna, far east of the Holy Land. Weren’t all these musings a bit like the Aristotelian idea of the soul functioning as the form, the ordering-principle, of the body: body and soul both destined for ever-greater perfection and freedom and integrity as both were perfected together?
He glanced out the window, and then it struck him. Well, both the slanting rays of the setting sun and a glimpse of the answer he sought: light strikes our eyes – from a planet, or a puppy, or a person – and imparts to us data about various objects. That data our mind, it is true, abstracts in order to articulate the general form of whatever it is we are looking at. But, there is a form beyond that thing, not quite like Plato thought: more accurately, there is a mind beyond our mind, that has illuminated us. A Word that has been spoken, a Truth that has been given. We only come to the higher, beyond-this-world, knowledge because we have been given a participation in the Mind beyond-this-world, Who designed all the intelligible things we see and study … and that Intelligence also dwells within us! Plato was right: at our heart we are beyond this world, but Aristotle also had something correct: our body and soul together image the God Who has delighted to make us intelligent like He is.
– Fr. Rankin loves Autumn. The trees turn gold, speeding his gratitude. The weather turns cold, speeding his runs. The year turns old, speeding us towards Christmas.