Tag Archives: Thomas Aquinas

Summa Meteorologica

French illustration of the four seasons

After the manner of the Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, we now inquire into the seasons of the year, whether they exist.

Objection 1: It seems that the seasons exist. Spring follows upon winter, winter follows autumn, autumn follows summer, and summer follows spring, in annual fourfold succession, as all attest.

Objection 2: Further, the seasons are observable in the changes they work upon plants in their sprouting, flowering and fruiting, and in the alterations of weather proper to each: cold and snow for winter, decreasing chill and intermittent rain for spring, heat and cloudlessness for summer, decreasing heat and intermittent storms and fogs for autumn.

Objection 3: Further, as it is written (and as Pete Seeger and the The Byrds have memorably repeated), “to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Eccles. 3:3).

On the contrary, the seasons cannot be said to exist, but they belong to the imagination. They may be said to subsist by human custom, but not in the regularity of manner commonly ascribed to them.

I answer that the arbitrariness of seasons is proved by the fact that the “season” assigned to 45 degree north latitude on the Ides of October (autumn) is not the same as the “season” assigned to 45 degrees south latitude on the same date (spring). Furthermore, the meteorological characteristics commonly ascribed to the seasons (e.g. heat, cold, rain, snow, fog, etc.) express themselves with notorious irregularly. The present winter on the western coast of North America, for example, has proved markedly unseasonal with a superfluity of warm, rain-free days. Seriously, it was like 80 degrees the other day. What the hell is up with that? A more suitable manner of calculating seasons might allow for the irregular assignment of spring, summer, autumn, and winter days throughout the year based on actual weather conditions. By such a scheme, any day of 70 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter – whether it occurs in February or in August – may be called a “summer day.” Likewise, any day of 35 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, or any day whatever with snowfall, may be called a “winter day,” even if it occurs in June. As prevailing conditions dictate, it may be that more summer days than winter days occur in the month of February, and more winter than summer days in the month of August. Likewise, the balance of the seasons need not be equally proportional but may favor summer one year, spring or autumn or winter the next.

Reply to Objection 1: Popular attestation, even if it be universal, does not establish the existence of any object or phenomenon.

Reply to Objection 2: At the equator there is no observable difference of vegetation or of weather to accord with the seasons as they are commonly differentiated one from another in more temperate regions.

Reply to Objection 3: The prophet Daniel affirms the arbitrariness of the seasons and their mere subsistence in custom when he says of God that “He changeth the times and the seasons” (Daniel 2:21). Further, human pretensions to meteorological knowledge are made null by our Savior himself when he says (Acts 1:7) that “it is not for you to know the times or the seasons.”

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Reading Notes: G.K. Chesterton and John Gray

In his biography of Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton has only a few things to say about the “Dumb Ox” himself, but that’s the way it is with all his books: the ostensible subject is most of the time fondly neglected for the atmosphere surrounding it. From most writers this would be intolerable, but from Chesterton, somehow, it’s better than tolerable, because almost no one else is so fun to read. Chesterton’s Aquinas is no vague hypothesizer of miniature angels traipsing about in Nana’s sewing kit, but the champion of common sense philosophy, out to rescue medieval Christendom from the slow creep of Platonism, and to return it – with some help from Aristotle – to an affirmation of the reality and value of the material order, and a reasonable sense of our place within it.

Regarding our place within it, Aquinas – and Chesterton – insist that we are at home; that the material order is no catastrophe but essential to human beatitude; that a ghost is no more a complete man than a corpse is; that the senses are windows through which we perceive an actual world beyond, and into which light shines to show us ourselves; that the will is free; that we are kindred to other animals while at the same time elevated by intellect; that human reason has “a divine right to feed upon facts.” My grasp on medieval philosophy is weak, but I know that Chesterton is simplifying things. I also know that the compellingly baited lures of our own “age of uncommon nonsense” (Chesterton’s phrase) are sometimes difficult not to swallow. But I’ll happily take this antique sanity over the sort peddled today by persons like John Gray in Straw Dogs.

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Both Plutarch in the Moralia and Montaigne in The Apology for Raymond Sebond argue that animals are more human than we imagine. John Gray, however, wants us to know that humans are no different from animals at all. These are two very different things to say. The first grants that certain traits we might have imagined belonged only on our side of the fence are actually present on both sides. The second claims that there is no fence at all and that you are the physical, intellectual and moral equivalent of a bacterium.

Gray’s arch-materialist philosophy is the same, I gather, as that popularized by Daniel Dennett and his ilk. According to this view, your sense of self is illusion, your notion of what constitutes just or ethical behavior is imaginary, your every action is absolutely determined, and all that you think you know about reality – relying on common sense – is false in almost every detail. There’s some buzz these days about Thomas Nagel’s attack on this arch-materialism in his recent book Mind and Cosmos, which I have not read and am not qualified to comment on, but Andrew Ferguson’s recent piece for The Weekly Standard gives a summary.

Whatever your personal take on the issue, it’s hard to avoid the sense while reading Straw Dogs that Gray is slowly dismantling his own argument without realizing it. For example, after assuring us of our utter unexceptionality compared to other animals, he goes on to admit at least three exceptions. Per Gray, human beings do, in fact, differ from animals in possessing a sense of selfhood (and hence an understanding of death), in the complex conflicts of their interests, and in their means of employing language.

I’m less sure of these particular points of divergence than Gray is, actually. I’ve known animals with what seemed remarkable notions of their own selfhood – and I could trot out a half-dozen anecdotes suggesting that certain animals, at least, do have a notion of what death means for an individual. But in my opinion, despite the obvious fact of our basic commonalities with other animals, there comes a point – in the degree and use of intelligence, for example, or in the control of nature, or in the capacity for empathy, etc. – where even differences that might be characterized as quantitative add up, in effect, to qualitative differences. No bacterium will ever write a book arguing that bacteria are essentially equivalent to human beings. The fact that Mr Gray’s book exists seems to contradict its own premise.

His strict determinism I find equally unconvincing. According to Gray, determinism extends into the realm of the intellect. There is no free play of mind. People are no more responsible for their perspectives or beliefs than they are culpable for their actions. If this is so, of course, then there’s no point arguing. There’s no point trying to convince anyone to change his mind about anything, and Gray himself can take no credit for his own accidental illumination. Nonetheless, I insist that I can choose to punch a stranger in the face or not. I can likewise choose to endorse Gray’s notion of determinism or not, and the choice I make will have consequences. It will inform my view of life, my interactions with others, my own behaviors and choices. If this is so – if I can freely make even small and relatively inconsequential adjustments in my perspectives or ideas, and if these changes can change me in ways that I would not have changed otherwise – then strict determinism is false.

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I do give Gray points for his critique of the supernaturalism implicit in popular forms of naturalism today, by which I mean the tendency among certain materialists to pretend that the natural world is a closed system outside of which human beings operate almost as if they were themselves gods. “Cities,” Gray counters, “are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider’s web.” Per Montaigne, nothing can be anything but according to nature. However, the lesson for Gray should be to amplify his sense of what nature is – to broaden it to encompass personhood, intellect, moral responsibility, love – rather than to reduce his estimate of man.

In the end there’s something cynical and false in Gray’s posturing as he steps down from the mountain to address the human animals that crowd non-volitionally around him: “You don’t want to hear it, dear species,” he seems to say, “but the sad truth is that no one – absolutely no one – got it right except for Schopenhauer, and of course me….” Chesterton, referring to the John Grays of his own day (1933) writes: “No sceptics work sceptically; no fatalists work fatalistically; all without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume what it is not possible to believe. No materialist who thinks his mind was made up for him, by mud and blood and heredity, has any hesitation in making up his mind.”

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