I walked along a dirt road near a religious house on a beautiful Fall morning recently, enjoying the scenery. My mind was unburdened for the moment with difficult questions about the reality of things. The beauty of the morning Mass and liturgy and the passing evidence of the goodness of creation were sufficient to pause the reasoned quest for truth.
But not for long.
In the distance, a figure appeared, which approached and grew into a young woman, intently reading a book as she walked. “What’s that you’re reading?” I chirped as we came within hailing distance.
“Plato’s Republic,” she replied, matter-of-factly, as if anyone with whom you happened to cross paths in that rural zone would be reading Plato or something of the kind.
“Nice. Do you mind if I ask why you’re reading that?”
You don’t need a special reason to read Plato, of course, but I was curious. I noticed her copy was full of sticky markers – not a casual perusal.
She was preparing to teach it in the charter school where she worked. Fortunate students, indeed.
She was very patient about listening to my ensuing twenty-minute discourse on the Republic. This also did not seem out of place where we were. After all, we had both been out for a walk, and as Fr. James Schall of blessed memory would often insist, walking is a philosophical activity, or vice versa.
She may have found one or two of my points interesting, or not, but we parted ways and she resumed her reading. I resumed my immersion in the Fall beauty and goodness around us.
Later, in the chapel, I saw that she was praying intently. I certainly don’t know what was in her heart and head. But she displayed neither the face of a distraught penitent nor the serene vacuity of the mindfulness set. She was just intent.
I came across another intent character a bit later. He was explaining a point of Thomistic philosophy on sin and free choice to another visitor. He was a convert and had taken a great deal of trouble to understand his new faith in all its intellectual aspects, but also knew he still had much to learn.
He had impressive secular intellectual credentials as well, with a background in physics and medicine. That kind of broad curiosity struck me as like Aristotle’s, who thought and wrote about everything from biology to meteorology to logic to poetry to politics to the divine.
Little did I know.
Chatting about various things, he suddenly observed that he’d been wondering what Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas would have thought of Isaac Newton’s “First Law of Mechanics,” which says that both stationary objects and moving objects only change their velocity if a force is applied to them. For Newton, a moving object will keep moving in the same direction and at the same speed unless some force changes them. That’s inertia.
He thought Aristotle and Aquinas might have had a problem with that. (Aristotle, by the way, was another walking philosopher whose school became known as the Peripatetics.)
I’m no expert on Aristotle’s Physics, a very difficult work in which he treats questions of change and motion. Aquinas, understanding Aristotle as few others (if any) have ever done, wrote a famous commentary on the Physics.
I hazarded a guess that Aquinas would not have objected to Newton’s statement as such. Later, I confirmed in the Commentary that Aquinas says Aristotle claims that “Everything that is in motion must be moved by something. For if it has not the source of its motion in itself it is evident that it is moved by something other than itself, for there must be something else that moves it.”
That doesn’t sound too different from Newton. But Newton thought the natural state of an object was not to change its motion, while Aristotle thought the natural state of an object was to be at rest. Different, but they’re at least in the same conversation on the subject.
So my friend was right that Aristotle and Aquinas might have differed with Newton.
But it occurred to me that Aristotle and Aquinas might have had a bigger issue with Newton. They were interested not just in an isolated object’s motion, but in how any being began or came to be, and what its end would be. In other words, they were interested in the whole of the object and its parts, and in how that whole fit into the larger whole of “what is.”
They sought to understand reality as a whole for the sake of understanding it for itself. Newton and his successors sought to break things down, less in order to understand the whole and more to know how we can manipulate what we’ve broken down for our own purposes. (Interestingly, the author of an article on Aristotle and Newton, Rhett Allain, describes himself as someone who sometimes “takes things apart and can’t put them back together.”)
As I struggled to explain my notion to my friend, he stared at me intently, with no reaction. I finally asked whether this was helping, or making any sense. He broke into a big smile. “Yes, it’s great, and it’s making me think more about my question.”
But that intent, expressionless look bothered me. What did it remind me of?
And I thought suddenly of the title of G.K. Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas Aquinas, The Dumb Ox. Thomas’ fellow students nicknamed him that for his slow speech and stolid, intent demeanor.
Was I talking with another Dumb Ox?
I saw him later, in the chapel, praying intently.
I am always astounded by the old truth that faith and reason come together to see and understand reality in its fullness, the fullness of truth, beauty and goodness. It’s a tremendous joy to see that truth lived out by those around you.
*Image: The Road to Emmaus by Altobello Melone, c. 1516-17 [National Gallery, London]
You may also enjoy:
Robert Royal’s Walking a High Road
+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On Wrath and Anger