Miscellanea: The Weight of the World
“Again, it is said (…): ‘Thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight’ (Wisdom, 11:21). Thus we may understand by measure: the amount, or the mode, or degree, of perfection pertaining to each thing; but by number: the plurality and diversity of species resulting from the different degrees of perfection; and by weight: the different inclinations to proper ends and operations, and also the agents, patients, and accidents which result from the distinction of species.” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles. Book III: Providence, ch. 97., pg. 69, Image Books: Garden City, NY, 1956)
In Croatian language the expression “težina stvari” – “the weight of things” – has a meaning somewhat similar to what Anglophone speaker would express as things having “sharp edges”: it implies that the reality contracts our intentions and projects to its own measure. Croatian phrase doesn’t stress the sentiment of disappointment as much as it alludes to this “weightiness” as something revelatory of the poignancy and seriousness of facts that were initially understood superficially and light-heartedly – it is more or less a direct equivalent of the Latin expression gravitas when it is being used to describe the sternness of situation or someone’s character or even the effect some pieces of classical music produce.
Gravitas in music:
In both cases, however, the underlying meaning of the phrase is that “the weight of things” is the quality which discloses a profound aspect of the world and our experience of it – i.e. its depth.
Thomas Aquinas introduces the weight as the qualification of creation by interpreting the Bible quote in the following manner: the weight is the distinction of how different beings act and suffer in different ways.
As always in the context of Scientia Sacra, the subjective aspect we today would be prone to automatically expect is completely absent from Summa Contra Gentiles text, i.e. St. Thomas never tells us how we should feel about all this.
However, this doesn’t mean that such meaning is not contained implicitly as this simple statement about what amounts to variety of the expressions that can both be understood as acting and suffering or, in the extreme instance of applying the human terms to them, living and dying, is indeed something that qualifies our lives to the greatest extent.
When young man is driven by some aim, ideal or sentiment that overwhelms him, then the weight of things is what reveals to him his own incapability to realize it both because his own powers are inadequate and the flow of the world refuses to tune to his acts.
This gravely serious moment is what finally turns a youth into a man; it is, in its proper form, a final act of growing up, at best bitter sweet to the heart, at worst a wound that never heals in this life, depending on one’s willingness to cope with it and strength to endure what at first seems to be an ultimate defeat of his yearnings.
Yet only with maturity comes insight and this is the reason why theological passages of this sort are rarely appreciated in our day and age.
St. Thomas writes about infinite variety of forms in which creation discloses the will of its Creator and these forms act in such a way that, when for some reason one is deprived of premonition of their source, the truth, beauty and goodness of their abundance appears to him as an infinite maze of contradictions: things don’t behave as you would expect them to behave, plans fall apart not seldom because of some strange inner resistance you yourself harbour in your heart, the pieces of the puzzle just don’t fall into place no matter how certain it seemed that they will, just a moment ago.
Finally, death stalks us all.
One usual mistake modern thinkers make when considering the great theological works of the Middle Ages is that Scientia Sacra was a theodicy.
Theodicy is an attempt at justification of God, i.e. an endeavour to explain away objections to the essential goodness of creation proceeding from the creation, upwards and not the other way around. Therefore, the most modern critics of rationalism who attempt to stretch their criticism further than modernity, usually in order to find that one terminal flaw that supposedly set everything in the wrong direction, end up creating anachronisms.
Standard theodicy, for instance, tries to cope with the destruction, despair and death by justifying their place in the “world-system”; so death is finally understood as the source of new life, a part of process which unites us with nature, an illusion, etc.
St. Thomas is, however, pretty adamant in claiming that death is an unequivocal evil.
In the context of corporeal world death is subsumed under the broader term of “privation” or dissolution of form, destroying the integrity and uniqueness of every given being; as such it is shunned by all beings, but as the variety of creation is infinite, so are the modes of privation also infinite. Everything, however, strives to be, because in this way it acts in conformity with God’s own act which is unqualifiedly creative and affirmative of existence.
It is important to point out Thomas’ peculiar indifference or absence of pathos when treating with this subject. The shunning of evil for the sheep equals shunning of the wolf, because wolf is the source of its possible privation. There is no attempt to somehow obfuscate the full impact of the word used – sheep indeed has a fully natural – and this means ‘good’ – inclination to shun what is evil to it by staying alive and not ending up dead. Aquinas doesn’t show any inclination to somehow justify this by using some other word, as would someone constructing the system of theodicy do, but simply puts it as it is and how we, one might add, experience it in everyday life. Of course, converse applies to the wolf for whom the killing of sheep is a thing to do at every opportunity.
Obviously, if we take corporeal nature as the starting point of inquiry, good as the purpose of every act is always relative to the good of some other act, as neither reaches, and specifically in this context: is terminally unable to reach, the highest good; that by which they’re all being called ‘good’, in fact. What is not so obvious, however, is that this also prevents us from constructing the system of theodicy based on corporeal world, especially with the focus on extrinsic principles and causes as it usually occurs in modern philosophy.
If a child has a an urge to protect a fluffy little sheep from big bad wolf it is a quite natural urge because it comes not from the empathy towards sheep but from the untainted love for good, i.e. tenderness of life; also, love of children towards animals is in fact love towards human aspects those animals represent, appropriated to peculiarities of childhood – even grown man will certainly identify his little son or daughter with the gentle little sheep when expressing them affection they need, but will not have a problem to at the same time identify himself with the rabid wolf if he needs to protect them from the threat.
All this is rooted in the hierarchical variety of forms that constitute the world and, if this hierarchy would be taken away, as is possible only in imagination, the confusion about good and evil would automatically ensue, as it indeed does because imagination plays an important role in our lives and is more often than not confused with the proper act of intellection.
In the true sense death can be good only as the source of greater life and in nature it mostly serves this particular purpose.
In human life, however, things are radically different.
Death is unqualifiedly evil, because, from the human standpoint, it appears to be an unqualified termination of the image of God. The Calvary is the centrepiece of Christianity precisely because the purpose of it is the conquest of death. If death were merely a new beginning in itself, there would be no need for divine kenosis and direct intervention of God into the rotten root of man’s will to detach from Him; a state we call sin whose wage is death.
With this in mind we can glimpse how naive are people who claim that they don’t fear death. This would mean that they fear nothing, because every impediment to our energies is in its essence an instance of privation which we experience as partial – “little” – death.
This is the weight of things felt, but not understood. Yet to try to explain it away as a natural state, where evil is just an illusion of limited being who doesn’t get the “big picture” is completely false and, at least, quite irritating. Great pessimist philosophers like Schopenhauer gained sympathies not because they provided people with hope – quite the contrary – but because they didn’t try to obfuscate the fact. Of course, as modernity has no means to transcend evil, they gained renown for not providing an illusory way out by introducing utopian politics whose supposed optimism is just the fig leaf covering metaphysical despair.
In the life of religious man, that is, a man who at least still unconsciously feels his salvation is possible, weight of things is both the source of the sense of wonder and sorrow; the limits he discovers with maturity both constrain and, in a strange sense, liberate him; every defeat when observed from the distance seems to be a glimpse of freedom in a way that he finds very hard to explain even to himself. The energies making up what we call the flow or order of things appear distinctly meaningful, like a story in the midst of which he finds himself but is unable to divine its beginning and its end, certain, nonetheless, that both exist.
The story metaphor is not accidental but, at least for us moderns, quite a necessity, because it might well be that this is the art form in which we can best express the subjectivity that never seemed to bother people of St. Thomas’ age. Hegel, a giant of modern philosophy if in nothing else, then at least in going to the full depth of its pitfalls, claimed that the highest form of art – a romance – was born with the resurrection of the Saviour in the quite real way, both as the reality and as an artistic expression of the conquest of love over death. However modern people used to detach themselves from the sacramental deposit of the Church, through advent of autonomous subject, they never really abandoned this faith on the level of sentiment which is quite alive to this day. It is still the mainstay of public opinion on good and evil, never mind anti-Christian terms in which people, now when the theft of history is so far advanced, can express it, although its sentimentality obfuscates the insight into essence of the matter, when human subjectivity ends up being elevated to the principle of all understanding.
For such understanding, Thomas Aquinas appears detached because he never once gives it its due, yet it is quite appropriate for him not to do so. The weight of things, the depth of the world, is echoing quite clearly through Gregorian and Old Latin chants, religious hymns and is something no one can avoid encountering in the life of prayer. However, no one in his right mind believed he should provide the theological or metaphysical system that would’ve expressed it in strictly logical form, as some modern philosophical doctrines like phenomenology attempted.
And this gives us the glimpse into difficulty to properly evaluate the paradigmatic or classical works of any kind. Their value lies in the transcendence of the subjective and transient, which to an extremely subjectivist mind appears uninteresting because one cannot, as the saying goes, “see himself in it”.
Rarely does it occur to anybody that this is precisely how it ought be.
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