Building Straw Houses

Fellas, let’s talk about our incredible brainpower. If you don’t think you have incredible brainpower, please stick around for the rest of this post anyway, because I think you should hear what I am going to tell the guys who think they do.

Now, let’s say you do think you’re pretty smart, as I tend to think of myself. You probably get/got pretty good grades in school, yeah? Maybe you’ve got some expertise in something that few of the people around you know very much about, like mathematics, or programming, or political theory, or esoteric internet culture. Maybe you can impress friends and family by reciting information they’re not aware of. Maybe people flat-out tell you that you are one of the smartest people they know.

If this sounds like you, I have something to tell you, that you regularly need to tell yourself: you are not very smart in absolute terms. Your intellect, bound to grasp at the principles of reality through sensory input, is nothing before even the least angelic intellect, which has no need of learning, being instilled from its creation with direct knowledge of the nature of Creation. That goes without saying…but you are also not very smart compared to peak humanity. Have you ever read any of St. Thomas Aquinas’s writings? If you have not (and I do not just mean Wikipedia articles summarizing his writings) don’t go out and buy a boxed set, but try a little exercise: start with his commentary on Job, which I mentioned last week. First, read the text of the first chapter of the book of Job itself, see what you understand of the meaning of the text. Then, look at the meaning St. Thomas is able to extract from the same lines. Consider the depth he is able to perceive- and remember St. Thomas does not even bother here with the mystical reading, citing St. Gregory’s commentary as definitive. Have you read St. Gregory on Job? I have not, but it was well enough known to St. Thomas and his assumed reader that he does not even bother glossing it.


After you have read a bit, consider that this text is only one of many commentaries written by St. Thomas; he also wrote on many other books of Scripture, on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (as most scholastics did for their master’s work), and on much of the corpus of Aristotle, engaging with and responding to other Christian scholars as well as the writing of Islamic and Jewish commentators. He also wrote original works: to see what these are like, check out the first few questions of the Summa Theologiae. You will see that he begins by first examining the question of whether the subject he is writing about can be said to meaningfully/usefully exist, and whether men can study it fruitfully. Can you make such an argument for any of the subjects you have studied in school? It can be a good intellectual exercise to try, however good an answer you can muster.

St. Thomas is arguably one of the greatest thinkers of all time, and chances are, unless you have had a very unusual education, you have not only never read anything that he has written, but have also been primarily or exclusively taught by people who have never read anything he has ever written. All this is not to say our teachers are bad or that what we have learned is worthless, or that you need to become a Thomistic scholar, but merely to note how little of the world you or I actually understand or even know about. Indeed, knowing our own ignorance, we should rejoice with great relief that we do not believe, with the world, that only those who are especially intelligent are worthy of dignity and love. The Lord does not call us to become learned (although learning is good) but to become holy.

And if you are one of those blessed few who has read a great deal of Aquinas and other great thinkers, remember that the saint himself remarked that all he had written in life was “as straw” compared to the greatness of a true understanding of God and His creation. Indeed, he once said that He learned more from prayer than he ever had from all his studies (which for a man who had memorized as many texts as St. Thomas, was certainly saying something). As the book of Wisdom says: “And who shall know thy thought, except thou give wisdom, and send thy Holy Spirit from above…” (9:17) Whatever little knowledge we have has been given to us by God. Remember this.