“There is generally a difference between a man making his name and a man really doing his work.” G.K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas, 41
Tonight I was sitting in my little study nook doing some reading for my class on St. Thomas Aquinas when I came upon these words. Chesterton is talking about the first time Aquinas and Bonaventure went up to Rome together to defend “the freedom of the Friars” (specifically the relatively new order of the Dominicans who, instead of living the traditional monastic life in a monastery, took vows of poverty and roamed the globe preaching in the streets. A lot of traditional clergy didn’t like that idea.).
Aquinas spent his early life in a monastery at Monte Cassino, and although he was slated to take the prestigious position of abbot of the whole operation, he left to join the Dominicans and become a beggar. His aristocratic family was utterly furious, but Thomas was determined.
I am thinking about this idea of “a man making his name” versus “a man really doing his work.” It seems it’s impossible to tell when the shift happens, but I think it only ever really happens if you’re not at all conscious of the first step. History can only look back at your life and identify a time when you were “making a name for yourself.” To the one actually working, he must be always trying to really do his work. Otherwise he’s just chasing fame.
There is a clear divide between those people here who are conscious of making a name for themselves and those who are just here to really work. I am fortunate to have some very well known scholars teaching my classes this semester, and it’s quite clear to see which ones are interested in name-making (even after they’ve made it) and which ones are in the classroom and the library to really work.
St. Thomas’ most highly celebrated quality (at least by my marvelous professor, Denys Turner) was his humility. In the first lecture of our class on St. Thomas, he told us the story of the writing of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas’ most famous work. He had been writing and teaching for his entire life, and had spent most of his life working on this one document. It is vast and comprehensive, and shies from no topic great or small. It is his life’s work.
On December 6, 1273, he wrote, “I can write no more, for all I have written is but straw.” And he stopped writing, just pages from the conclusion of his chef d’oeuvre. On March 7, 1274, St. Thomas died from head injuries contracted from a fall from a horse.
Professor Turner said this was the most poignant way Thomas could have taught his most important lesson – the lesson of poverty and humility. The man concerned with making his name would have been desperate to finish the work, publish it, and parade it around the European academic community. Not Thomas.
Mozart once said the greatest sound in music was silence. Silences are the brackets that structure music – without it there is no space for sound to unfurl.
Thomas began his life in a monastery, spent his career preaching and teaching, and in the end returned to the silence in which he began. Did he recant and conclude that his choice to preach and teach was wrong? No, I don’t think so. The world needed Thomas and Bonaventure, and if they had been silent we would have all been the worse for it. But in the end, perhaps, silence became the best way he could teach.
Professor Turner told us that philosophy only matters if there is something more important than it. I think it’s the same with many things – words only matter if there are real things and truths they can represent. Theology only matters if there is actually a God to study. Most things on earth only matter because there is something more important than them that they somehow strive for or represent or imitate or follow.
Thomas seems to have known that there was nothing valuable about the words he’d written if there wasn’t living Truth for them to point to. And at that point in his life, maybe he thought it would be more important to keep silence, to cut out the “middle man” of language, as it were.
What remarkable truth Thomas uncovered in his efforts to really work. No chasing after a name. The only good teachers are the ones who get themselves out of the light so others can shine. If I am really here at Yale as the first step toward becoming a professor, I cannot take Thomas’ lesson seriously enough. The point of all this knowledge-gathering is so I can make myself lesser and see what “middle men” I can cut out along the path to pedagogy. Lord, teach me to really work, and do what you will with my name.