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Freedom and justice at the Warburg.

Aquinas. MacIntyre. Caravaggio. Weil.




Aquinas’s argument is not meant to show that the soul will survive for ever. He believed that it was, and always would be, within God’s power to annihilate a soul, to return it, as it were, to the nothingness from which it had been created (Summa 1, 75, 6c and ad 2).’ 1

I’d been reading Anthony Kenny without particular expectations. But when I came across that sentence, something in me said, ‘I want that!’ I wouldn’t convert to Buddhism in order to have oblivion to look forward to, but the thought that it was countenanced in Christianity too suddenly made it less abstract and more welcoming.

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The Warburg ‘system’.

I’d known about the Warburg Institute for a long time; it was shelved in my mind next to The Library of Babel, and there it would have remained had I not noticed the brass plaque on my way to Euston Road. So I went in and asked if the library was open to the public. Oh no! Oh well. But talk to the librarian – who had no objection. I asked how to deal with the strange classification system and he said look up a book you know in the catalogue, go and find it on the shelf, then look at the books round about it. So I got to spend a wonderful afternoon ranging the four floors of the place. You knew, perhaps, that Vladimir Solovyov had had a vision of Divine Wisdom in the nearby reading room of the British Library; did you know that not long before that he had developed a taste for English beer, and didn’t eat enough? Wait though: Aquinas.

Why did it take me the thirty years from publication of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry to ask Alasdair MacIntyre what I should read by Aquinas? I had been in touch with him longer than that (though we still haven’t met). I had asked him about other philosophers (‘Should I read Heidegger?’ – ‘The Americans should have shot him when they had the chance’). When I did ask, this was the reply:

As to how much Aquinas one has to read before deciding whether or not one is a Thomist, the answer can only be: a lot. There is enough in the Penguin Classics Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, edited and translated by my now-dead friend, Ralph McInerny. Someone who had read most of his Part One, including the translation of the De ente et essentia, and most of his Parts Two and Four, would be well read, but such a one would also need a good overview, such as that supplied by another dead friend, Herbert McCabe, in his On Aquinas and should probably have read something critical, such as Anthony Kenny’s Aquinas on Mind – and Kenny is a friend who is still alive! I, myself, was an Aristotelian long before I was a Thomist. It was reading parts of some of Aquinas’ commentaries on Aristotle that persuaded me that I was a Thomistic Aristotelian. 2

I looked up Aquinas in the Warburg and reported back to Alasdair MacIntyre: ‘I checked not one but two editions of the Summa, in Latin. My Latin isn’t good enough to summarise §1,75 for you, but it is just about good enough to state, with some confidence — but no certainty — that what Kenny says about God’s theoretic power to erase or abolish a soul, isn’t in the text’.

He replied the same day:

I do know the Kenny passage and it is not so much mistaken as misleading. It is misleading in that, first, as you note, Aquinas in his discussion of the soul says nothing about God’s power to end its existence, and, secondly, that, if, as Aquinas suggests, he is following Aristotle, then the soul as form could not cease to exist in this way. But Kenny is in a way not mistaken. For, on Aquinas’ view of God’s power, nothing continues to exist except by God’s will. But this is a thought quite inconsistent with Aristotle. 3

Ah well.

I slogged through the translation of De ente et essentia and learned only that ‘genus’ and ‘species’ didn’t mean the same things back then. The Summa Theologiae is clear, structured and impersonal – with signs of an earnest and likeable author, who frets about his thoughts being flighty, going from one thing to another, 4 and who, stating that happiness cannot consist principally of honours, does admit that recognition by the wise is gratifying.5 Though a bit of a kill-joy (‘If play were engaged in for its own sake, we would play always, which is inappropriate’),6 ‘he insists, against a long Augustinian tradition, that sexual activity is not sinful because the pleasure is so vehement that it “suspends the use of reason”. He remarks that if suspending the use of reason were sinful we should never go to sleep’.7 And he is solemnly crazy about angels. Angels, he says, have no imagination. 8 Also ‘It should be said that angels can syllogize, insofar as they know syllogisms and see effects in their causes and causes in their effects…’9

MacIntyre’s Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry looks at Aquinas, the Encyclopædia Britannica (Ninth edition) and Nietzsche. What particularly impresses him about Aquinas is the ability to assess and assimilate a very different world view. MacIntyre conveys some of the complexity of this task:

It can only be recognized and characterized by someone who inhabits both alternative conceptual schemes, who knows and is able to utter the idiom of each from within, who has become, so to speak, a native speaker of two first languages, each with its own distinctive conceptual idiom. Such a person does not need to perform the tasks of translation in order to understand. Rather it is on the basis of his or her understanding of both conceptual idioms that the respects in which untranslatability presents barriers around or over which no way can be discovered can be acknowledged. Such persons are rarely numerous. They are the inhabitants of boundary situations, generally incurring the suspicion and misunderstanding of members of both of the contending parties. It was just such suspicion and misunderstanding that Aquinas incurred both from some Augustinians and from some Latin Averroist Aristotelians, and he incurred it precisely because he was just such a person. 10

Aquinas had studied at the newly-founded University of Naples, and he was working on Aristotle while the texts were coming to light and being translated. He had produced commentaries on Boethius, elegantly clarifying some of the more hermetic texts from seven centuries back, but the Aristotle was much older, much stranger and highly controversial, coming as it did with Moslem and Jewish commentaries that did not always make assimilation easier. He did not accept everything in Aristotle (that the universe had been in eternal existence, for example), and he was able to make technical improvements when he saw flaws. He really was working between two worlds. Dante puts him in his paradise; a wrong move could have landed him in hell with his Arabic translator, Michael Scot. Not to mention the murderous judgment passed by some religious orders, including his own.

How are faith and reason joined in the theology of Aquinas?

‘The believer more firmly assents to the things that are of faith than to the first principles of reason’. 11 And yet ‘It is clear, then, that it is not incoherent to say that an efficient cause need not precede its effect in duration; if it were conceptually incoherent, God could not of course bring it about.’ 12 My italics. Where does that ‘of course’ come from, in a believer who sets faith above reason? It doesn’t even come from Catholic dogma, since he has just written:

Thus Augustine, in Against Faustus, writes, ‘Whoever says “If God is omnipotent he can make the things that were such that they were not,” does not see that he is in effect saying, “If he is omnipotent he can make what is true, as true, be false.”’ None the less there have been those who with great piety said that God can make the past not to have been past and it was not judged heretical. 13

Which brings us back to Alasdair MacIntyre’s email of 6 December (above). It allows that, for a Christian, reason may not have primacy. Thus it undermines the rational structure of the Summa. All the more reason to read Lev Shestov, Athens and Jerusalem.

IN SUMMA CONTRA Gentiles, book 314, Aquinas lists the apparent goods that are not the constituents of happiness: pleasure, honours, glory, riches, worldly power, bodily goods, the senses, the moral virtues, the act of prudence, artistic activity. Only the contemplation of God is happiness. This could be accepted, though some of the arguments adduced are odd: ‘Worldly power cannot be man’s highest good because in obtaining it too great a deal of luck is involved, it is unstable, it is not subject to man’s will…’ — these three arguments appeal to human practicalities and exclude divine providence. ‘Luck’ is a philosophical problem, not a theological one.

As Etienne Gilson puts it (and he footnotes St Augustine):

One can of course speak about luck in everyday conversation, but since the world is the work of God, and since everything in it is governed by providence, how could one imagine that there could be radically fortuitous events? Nihil igitur casu fit in mundo; nothing in the world happens by accident: such is the true Christian point of vie on the order of the universe. 15

Aquinas on bodily goods:

… man’s highest good does not lie in the goods of the body, such as health, beauty and strength, for those too are common to the good and evil, are unstable and are not subject to will. Moreover, the soul is better than the body, which only lives and has its aforementioned goods through the soul. Therefore since the good of the soul, such as understanding and the like, is better than the good of the body, the good of the body cannot be man’s highest good. 16

A couple of problems there: the goods of the body are subject to will (olympic gymnasts can train just as hard as corpulent friars); the goods of the body are indeed common to good and evil, but so to an even greater degree is ‘understanding and the like’ — goods of the soul.

Also, though I do find Aquinas’s fascination with angels endearing, I have to point out that they have been known to wrestle, which is a skill of the body, and above all to sing in choirs. Never, to my knowledge – and I have come through a great deal of Bible in my day – never has an angel been known to come out with a syllogism.

From Aristotle perhaps, comes a tendency to see one’s own practice as the highest good. Also a tendency to prefer continuity to intensity of enjoyment — the contemplative life. That’s an actuarial rather than a theological point of view, a matter of getting and defending the most durable goods for as long as you can manage. Gregory Vlastos reckoned that Socrates had cracked it. Bernard Williams concluded that there was an irreducible degree of luck in the matter that moral philosophy couldn’t guard against. (Remember Aquinas on luck in politics, above.) Christians, though, aren’t wedded to such a prudential approach, since the contemplation of God is promised in the next life. If all goes well. Christians have other options in this life, not all to be sniffed at. Poetry, for example.

Now, Umberto Eco (see section II) makes high claims for Aquinas’s understanding of poetry and his skill as a poet, and yet Aquinas did maintain that poets are mendacious. When in Metaphysics, 1.2, Aristotle rebuts the poet Simonides’s claim that the gods have a tendency to jealousy, Aristotle cites the proverb “bards tell many a lie”. In his commentary on that passage, Aquinas goes further: “Not only in this, but in many other matters, poets lie, as is said in the popular proverb”.17
Elsewhere, Aquinas insists again that poetry is inimical or indifferent to the truth: ‘Widely differing sciences ought not to share the same mode. But poetry, which contains the least truth, is far different from this science (theology) which is most true. Therefore, since the former proceeds by way of metaphorical locutions, the mode of this science should be different.18

So poetry is bad. But the Psalms are good (Summa contra gentiles, 3.1, if you require a reference). Therefore, the syllogism has to run, the Psalms are not poetry.

From an early age I wrote verse, but believed that the Psalms were of another order, phylum and kingdom to human poetry. And it took me too many years to realize that the psalmists wrote acrostics, used strict alliterative patterns at times and, when all else failed, plagiarized songs in praise of other Middle Eastern deities, of whom the One was indeed, and according to scripture, Jealous. The psalmist, like the rest of us, wrestles with the language.

So is that what we’ve been leading up to? We’re annoyed at being despised by Divus Thomas?

That’s part of it. Another part is the primacy of reason in this work and the strange absence of vision (it’s not that vision is obligatory in theology; just that its absence in the Summa is total). Aquinas is a synthesist — perhaps the greatest. Look again, though, at MacIntyre’s account of the complexity of his task: it is as though he were the master of two different languages, knowing which parts were unbridgeable. But Aquinas did not know Hebrew, and, for Aristotle, he depended on translations, in which thought gets disembodied and re-invested. His own verse, and his comments on art in practice19, concern the physical transposition of what the author had in mind, something imposed on passive matter. This might produce a masterpiece in the original sense of the term, but not poetry, which entails a struggle or dialogue with what is, with what exists.

For Aquinas the scriptures too are a given, a divine dictation, and his approach to them — which explicitly eschewed the poetic — was philosophical. Such was his theology.

There is a fairly bitter irony in that. As Alasdair MacIntyre points out, ‘the Summa appeals to authorities, most of all to the gospels, but it claims no authority for itself.  And in the late middle ages this was well understood.’ 20

It was never intended as the vast, gothic temple in which generations were raised as Catholics. Aquinas’s scheme wasn’t something that could have been built in the streets of the old city, where you couldn’t walk ten yards without being accosted by homeless people or officials. It was new build, it was peripheral and clean. It was abstract, angelic of course, and nothing like the street life of the Gospels where the hereafter got mentioned only in passing, and more in response to questions than spontaneously. We infer it offers sufficient food and drink, no sex and no family ties — rather like the lifestyle Christ chose for himself. Ah, paradise! What the Koran promises is what the Buddha walked away from. And so what? The Kingdom the Christ preached was a function of the here-and-now. Its god is the God of the living. Aquinas’s Summa, by contrast, was a low-orbit satellite posing as heaven’s gate, and it wasn’t officially superseded, with its Latin branding, till Vatican II. Also it was so big that very few of the laity could claim to comprehend it; it was presented as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. An apparent good, it did not seem to promise happiness.

BUT WHAT IF happiness, like tragedy, is not something to be reckoned with? What if it’s something that visits us at moments and is more than we can bear? Nicolas Bouvier writes:

We can take such flashes of perfection, fusion, total happiness, only in alternating current, whilst Creation, with all its deranged absurdity and ferocity, deals in direct current. And that’s a good thing: too much happiness would destroy our fragile constitution; we would burn up like moths in a flame; this is why we are given only the smallest doses of it, no more than our frail hearts could bear. 21

If that is the case, happiness is more a matter for poetry than for theology.

And though poetry is a practice, it must at times avoid apprenticeship: when the rules become too formal, when the market gets too venal, when it all gets too cosy to be true. Because it has to come out of nowhere. It has to come from next to nothing.


24 January 2020:

Dear Alasdair,

Happy new year of the rat!

I’ve just finished the Penguin selection of Aquinas, and re-read your own Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, in which I found a letter of yours from 1991 saying you’d be interested in anything further I wrote on Lev Shestov. Well, nothing further was written, though he came to mind more than once as I read the Aquinas. I’ll have to write about that; indeed, given St Thomas’s fascination with angels, I ought to have included a chapter in Find an Angel and Pick a Fight a few years back.

Best wishes,


Wed, Feb 5, 2020:

Dear Alasdair,

On second thoughts, Aquinas’s rejection of poetry amounts to a rejection of much of scripture, on the grounds that it doesn’t fit with Aristotle and the basic rules of logic. Or to turn it another way – Aquinas can accept biblical poetry only by refusing to see it as such, so he’s kidding himself.

I’m not saying poetry is superior to philosophy, just that it’s a different approach to what matters. And the fact that Dante accommodates Aquinas while the opposite wouldn’t have happened, isn’t in my view proof of the superior carrying power of poetry, but of the greater scope of Dante.

I’m sure the contemplative life is a good one, but there are other goods and gifts. There are other God-given talents.

Another thing – you yourself sound much more like Augustine the story-teller and polemicist than like Aquinas. Not that you should stick to the company of like-minded people.

So I went back to Shestov, his book Sola Fide, and I see him quote Duns Scotus, in Latin, with the precise references, to the effect that something is good not because it stands to reason but because God says it is. Which stands to reason.

Stuck at that point, I go back again to my books on Scotus, which might as well be particle physics, for all I understand them.

In short, it’s all good fun until the music stops. I hope you’re in good enough health.



5 Feb 2020:

Dear Peter,

About Aquinas on poetry you are – understandably – mistaken. See Paul Murray OP on ‘Aquinas on poetry and theology’ in Logos 16,2,2013, available on the web, and Eco’s book on the aesthetics of Aquinas. He and Dante are not, I think, in disagreement. Scotus has this advantage over Aquinas, that he has his own English poet, Hopkins.

Every good wish,


5 Feb 2020:

Dear Alasdair,

I have the Eco book and will now read it. I’ve been sceptical about his theories: like the (recently departed) George Steiner he seemed to have read and remembered everything; I used them more for their reading tips than for their ideas.

I know the Paradiso was founded on the Summa, and I seem to recall that Dante regarded vernacular poetry as a much humbler affair than theology. It was Hopkins who first alerted me to Scotus, fifty years ago, though his debt to the theologian is not so obvious.

What I said about Aquinas and poetry does come from the texts you recommended, and I don’t see two ways of reading it, so I look forward to the Paul Murray article, which is available to subscribers only. I’ll see if Geneva Uni will let me near it.

Best wishes,


Feb 10, 2020:

Dear Alasdair,

First of all, I take back what I wrote about Eco. What an amazing piece of work for a 22-year-old! He was said to be a fairly unpleasant teacher, impatient of his students’ ignorance, but I can see at least where that came from. In short,Il problema estetico in Tommaso d’Aquino is that Thomas didn’t see much of a problem. But I’m glad Eco didn’t let that stop him continuing.

So, I accept Eco’s strong words on Aquinas’s competence as a poet and his assurance that ‘this view of the dignity of the poetic mode does not betoken contempt, but simply a scale of values’;22 he simply regarded sacred scripture as higher (fair enough) and also contemplation of the divine.

But none of that solves the problem, which is that because Aquinas puts an altar rail between sacred scripture and other writing, he is not able to accept that the Psalms are poems, and that any stricture he places on secular poetry – in terms of its methods – applies equally to much of sacred scripture.

I don’t know if this is the right place to bring in Paul Murray, whom you recommended, since he has problems of his own that I’m not a good enough Samaritan to help with, but how about this, which he quotes: ‘… poems partake of reason — by which man is man — to a greater degree than other mechanical works” (Sententia libri ethicorum, book 9, lecture 7, 1167b33)’. 23

Who told Aquinas that reason is that by which man is man? Was it Jesus? It was not. But maybe it was Aristotle. If it was, then the Greeks have done another reverse takeover, just like the one they did on Ancient Rome.

Next to the Eco, I found a copy of Etienne Gilson, Dante The Philosopher (English translation 1948, purloined from the library of St Aloysius College Glasgow and sold on to me by Voltaire & Rousseau for £3.50 and unread till yesterday). Gilson maintains, with some energy, that Dante stood for a separation of powers between papacy (theology) and empire (philosophy). He did not agree at all with Aquinas that philosophy should be the servant of theology.

In Paul Murray I find sly short-cuts that suit the pulpit better than the page. For example, if the great WH Auden says poetry is a paltry thing, then Aquinas is right about it. I mention this only because it’s one of the things Aquinas has been used for: a warehouse for received ideas, a structure so immense that people don’t challenge it, they just take their custom elsewhere.

I see nothing wrong with Aristotle producing a comprehensive taxonomy of human goods and placing his own practice at the apex of it, but I don’t think that sits well with Christianity. This is not to say that Aquinas’s system can’t be used today in the way you suggest, but that it should acknowledge the independent existence of practices which it should not try to assimilate.

With that, I realise I’ve strayed far into your territory, which wasn’t my intention: what I want is to defend a space for poetry as a separate activity that cannot be assimilated or subjugated to philosophy or theology. Still, it’s possible that the very fact of worrying about such things is not a good sign these days.

Keep well.


14 February 2020:

Dear Peter,

After all the texts and all the commentary what remains indisputable is that Aquinas did not know what to make of poetry, but the same is true of every other great philosopher. I have made two unsatisfactory attempts, one in my paper ‘Poetry as Political Philosophy: Notes on Burke and Yeats’, published in the second volume of my Selected Essays, and an unpublished paper which I attach. Do not feel under any obligation to read either of them.

Every good wish,


14 February 2020:

Dear Alasdair,

I’ve now read both (having read the Burke and Yeats more than once already). Thank you very much. I had feared you’d got bored with my ill-informed complaining, and I’m grateful you haven’t (yet). That’s as good an overview of where poetry is as I’ve seen in a while. Coincidentally I’d been struggling through the Wake in the last week. I find it more purgatorial than you suggest.

What I should do now is to sort out where I think poetry fits in with all of this.

Before that, though, a couple of points: I’d misrepresented Gilson on Dante and philosophy. He did indeed maintain forcefully that Dante stood for separation of powers, but you’ve reminded me indirectly that there were three powers in play, not two. In the Paradiso these come in the persons of Aquinas (theology), Siger (a philosopher who was determined to keep that separate from theology), and Solomon – who asked for wisdom to rule, not Wisdom in general, thus recognising his area as that of practical judgment in politics. Gilson is also droll on how Dante makes Bonaventure, in paradise, praise Joachim di Fiore, whom on earth he couldn’t abide.

Best wishes,


ON FRANCE CUL­TURE, I heard a director interviewed about his latest film. Didn’t catch his name, but he was saying interesting things about parents and children, and about adapting a novel to the screen, so I looked for the film Mon Chien Stupide and went to see it. The director (Yvan Attal) played the lead role of a professional novelist who is running on empty as his children grow up and leave home. His wife is played by his real-life partner Charlotte Gainsbourg. It was the first time I had seen her on screen. The novel was by John Fante, whom I’d never read. In Glasgow soon after that, I found and read his Ask The Dust (1939),24 and recognised the stigma of a Catholic education. At the same time I had just bought the memoir of an old friend (Willy Slavin),25 and another friend, the poet Gerald Mangan, had given me a copy of his memoir in the last-ever issue of Parnassus. Slavin’s book mentions Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe, because its author had, like himself, attended the Scottish seminary in Rome, the one going on to fantasize about the papacy, the other becoming a priest. I had bought Rolfe’s book decades earlier while studying Hugh MacDiarmid but didn’t read past the first chapter till the other day. Fortunately, I also found a copy of Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky (1949),26 once filmed by Bertolucci, so I did escape the shadow of the Vatican for a bit this winter; it’s an astonishing novel.

Purgatory. In an unpublished essay ‘Poetic Imaginations Catholic and Otherwise’, Alasdair MacIntyre takes the canonical road through the liturgy, Hopkins, Joyce and Beckett, Homer and Virgil, not forgetting many modernist poets in Europe and America. The emblematic text, in this presentation, is Finnegans Wake, in which the individual is dissolved in a purgatory that doesn’t seem to take us anywhere. It is the world of a Catholic atheist. ‘Catholic atheists’, writes MacIntyre, ‘are apt to lapse into quasibelief, a state in which, while denying the truths of the Catholic faith, their view of the world is still imaginatively informed by some fragmented version of their lost faith.’ Meanwhile, in later generations, ‘What the great poets of modernity achieve by their transformed and transformative uses of language is a breaking down of stereotypes, a breaking with tired and worn out uses of language, a breaking away from conventional and habitual uses of language, so that we become able, even if only for moments, to see what would otherwise be invisible, to hear beyond the noise and the silence, and to speak words that we could not otherwise have made our own. The poetry of modernity from time to time rescues us, or at least some few of us, from the bad linguistic habits of modernity.’

As I often find with MacIntyre, what I was about to say at length is encapsulated in few words. But this won’t stop me from trying to relate what he says to the above paragraph on my recent reading.

FANTE’S FIRST NOVEL is about becoming a writer. Many US writers have a thing about becoming writers, perhaps even about writing the great American novel. What they actually write doesn’t seem to matter so much to them. Look: there’s John Fante; he’s a writer. Compare it to Archie Hind, The Dear Green Place (1966). This was another working-class author whose first book was about becoming a writer in Glasgow in the 1950s, but in his case the subject matter was the main thing. Getting onto a career path hardly features. Fante seems to have modelled his narrator’s abusive courting of a waitress on Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, though in the American’s case making it as a writer entails a specific break with Catholic morality in the narrative sacrifice of his first two sexual conquests. The first dies in an earthquake almost immediately after intercourse, while the second disappears into the Mojave Desert to die of heat stroke. This narrator was a dangerous man to know. I’ve lost count of the novels and films in which the narrative is cauterized with the death of a woman; it’s a crappy expedient. But in this case it enables the author to join the secular priesthood of his vocation: he becomes a writer.

Willy Slavin did become a Catholic priest, going through junior seminary (instead of the usual secondary school) and the Scots’ College in Rome. He also trained as a psychologist. Five years in Bangladesh in the early ’70s put poverty at the centre of his concerns, and from then on he worked in Scottish prisons, with drug addicts, and with poor people in general. What he describes is an exemplary life, set out under the headings of poverty, chastity and obedience. On chastity, Slavin briefly relates two loves of his life, which did not lead to a breach of his vows. On the sexual scandals and corrupt cover-ups of the Catholic hierarchy he has nothing much to say, whether as priest or as psychologist. Slavin, then, embraces poverty and copes with chastity; for obedience, he checks the small print and, on page 65, defines the word etymologically (and questionably) as ‘listening’, so he never felt obliged to do just whatever some bishop told him. He doesn’t necessarily connect that with people around him:

When older people get the chance to express regret about what they have done or not done with their lives they will perhaps say that they gave too much energy to paid work. In other words, for the time they had to do what they were told.’27

If you choose to have children, or to attempt anything at all in human society, you immediately put yourself in the power of others. That doesn’t mean unconditional surrender. Working in one of the biggest bureaucracies on the planet, Fr Slavin knows that himself. Things can go terribly wrong for you, or they can go so well that you have, in retrospect, only mild regrets over conceding too much at times.

He himself is fairly, and at times unfairly proud of what he has done. ‘All the great and the good were there, none of whom, significantly, I recognised from street work.’ It just doesn’t interest him that some of the great and good were doing other work, even other good work, that he wasn’t party to. He wouldn’t have had much time for scholarly Thomas Aquinas, I guess, and we know that Aquinas saw Slavin’s kind of practical work as several levels below the contemplative life in the scheme of things. (This is what exasperates me most about so many moral authorities from Aristotle to Aquinas to the nearest parish priest: it’s as if their world would collapse if they were to acknowledge the possibility of a good that is independent of theirs. In Calvino’s Il Barone Rampante, the father says to his son, ‘You know that, with the title of duke, you could command the nobles under you?’ The son replies, ‘I know that when I have more ideas than other people I suggest them; if they are accepted, that is authority.’ 28 In a recent interview Slavin says ‘I know how to write’. Well, yes and no: he can tell a story and set out an argument, but he does this in a relentless rain of assertions and simple sentences. Fante, or Mangan (up next) could have shown him how to vary and pace a paragraph, though he probably wouldn’t have seen the point: a statement is true or it’s not. That’s all there is to it.

GERALD MANGAN GREW up on the South Side of Glasgow, as did I. We met in Paris twenty years back while there for a reading, and did a fair amount of singing and drinking. I read his poetry later, and reconnected just recently, when he moved back to Glasgow. Mangan’s ‘One Bed This Night’29 is a memoir of his early life in Glasgow. Unlike Fante or Slavin it is not vocational (about becoming and being a writer or a priest). If you need a subject, it’s about being a man, which, in his case, included a slow but sure estrangement from a Catholic upbringing and from any belief in God. Mangan would seem to fit Seamus Heaney’s self-deprecation, ‘cursed with a fairly decent set of instincts’, something of a law unto himself. Relations with local Protestants had always been good in his part of Glasgow, so there was none of that damaging exclusiveness that afflicted other districts; this in turn meant that there was none of the religious solidarity that comes from a sense of ambient threat. Indeed, it transpired that the threat came from within, in the form of a parish priest who took a fancy to Mangan’s 18-year-old sister. Which didn’t stop the priest from lecturing Mangan’s parents when they decided to separate. Why should it? More than one big religion venerates a violent, bullying founder who sets up a god in his own image. Many meek and thoughtful people make a life there. You need only step into certain working churches or mosques to feel how different they are from tourist venues such as Hagia Sophia (though that has recently become a house of prayer again). I would have hoped it possible to step out of them also, but that isn’t so easily done.

‘Self-educated working men’, as Virginia Woolf might have put it. What is the point in reading a clutch of parochials? Surely it’s better to stick with the canon. Part of the time, yes. And if you teach, you’re paid to. If not though, as MacDiarmid put it rather cheaply (and probably quoting someone else), ‘the beaten path is beaten from the start’.

It might — I don’t know — be difficult for the people we used to unendearingly refer to as ‘non-Catholics’ to grasp the extent and the normative force of the Roman Catholic Church. And far stronger than the institution is the ‘soft power’ that pervades it, exercised by exactly those meek and thoughtful people who devote themselves to regular prayer. Like poems, prayers do their work, whether or not they are heard. I’ve never understood or been interested in theological or philosophical arguments on the existence of God. The argument from gratitude is enough for me. What happens after death? Aquinas will tell you in crushing detail, but Jesus doesn’t. I know that biology emerged from geology; this is the land of the living. Will a further miracle arise from biological life? We can’t know. It might.

MacIntyre runs through the literary canon from a Catholic point of view. I know the books he refers to, which makes me a weird species of dinosaur. What of those who haven’t even heard of them and who will never have the time to learn? Many adhere to a faith, and let their spiritual leaders guide them. That can work. But not for everyone. MacIntyre speaks of the constant support of liturgy in Catholicism, and yet he praises modernist poets for breaking with the tired or worn-out uses of language. Liturgy, in my experience, contains a lot of that. Unvaried repetition of any text at all, however excellent, tends to void it of meaning in the long run. It has to be renewed. And poets must be prepared to defy the mortal threats of organised religion, without necessarily rejecting everything revered in a church. In terms of salvation, it would be more prudent to avoid such defiance, but really. As MacDiarmid puts it,

To save your souls fu’ mony o’ ye are fain.
But de’il a dizzen to mak’ it worth the daein.

Souls do go astray in the process; the protagonist of The Sheltering Sky will never find home. But that is because nothing in this world or what she knows of the next merits the name. The whole story illustrates what Simone Weil, around the same time, was trying to combat in writing L’Enracinement.31 More on her towards the end.

I’d been reading Etienne Gilson, L’Esprit de la Philosophie Médiévale. He can tell you what God is and how he operates, and he sees at a glance the difference between Aquinas and Scotus in respect of Aristotle; he completed that book a year after Weil died, two years after Woolf, and he tells you how God works in history, the year after the Wannsee Conference. His work becomes a re-enactment of the way in which scholastic philosophy lost contact with planet Earth. And with the Gospel:

Many Christians today would be surprised to learn that the belief in the immortality of the soul was so obscure in some of the oldest fathers of the Church that it barely existed. But that is a fact, and an important one to note, since it so clearly shows the central axis of Christian anthropology and the reason for its historical evolution. Basically, Christianity without immortality of the soul would not by any means have been inconceivable, the proof being that it was so conceived.32

Surprised indeed, and more than that. One day they don’t think so, next day they don’t know; the day after that it’s dogma and you’re dead if you deny it.

Christ said to the Church he founded that whatever it binds on Earth will be bound also in Heaven. That isn’t a licence to dictate the order of things in Heaven or off-world, things such as the immortality of the soul. These schoolmen increasingly resembled particle physicists denied access to an accelerator.

If we suppose that the divine intellect, in itself and apart from any voluntary determination, knows that of two possible events one must occur, then either that event must remain contingent in itself, in which case the divine intellect could be mistaken, or the knowledge that the divine intellect has of it is infallible, in which case the event ceases to be contingent. Thus, at the intellectual level, a distinct knowledge of the contingent remains impossible.33

That is Gilson on my great compatriot, Duns Scotus. The link with quantum physics is obvious enough. The link with the Gospels is not so clear.

A curious difference between the Gospels and the Koran (the main one, I think, being that Moslems don’t see humanity as standing in need of redemption) is in alms-giving: Jesus told his followers to give in secret, otherwise their good deeds would buy them only spurious praise. The Koran says to give publicly and also privately. There’s a logic to both approaches: both seem good and there’s no reconciling them. Nor is there a need to. It’s good that, in their day, people such as Dante’s contemporary, Ramon Llull, worked on a universal language in the hope of bringing peace between Christians and Moslems (probably by converting the latter); it’s good also when people, while aware of its short-comings, stick to their own tradition:

It is her (Mary) that we all miss so badly in  Protestantism. Her absence is a kind of hole, a void. That is why Protestants always seem like orphans, motherless children. Who will show them tenderness? Who will console them? The Greeks had their goddesses. But we have set Mary aside as a minor figure. I envy the Catholics for Mary!

And yet I would not become a Catholic … One must accept what one is, and not deny one’s origins … but often I think of Mary, who said almost nothing, who left us only a few words. But we have her gestures, her tears, her suffering, her astonishment. And although we don’t know much of what she said, we know what was said to her: ‘Woman, what are you to me?…’ and with that we were all rejected, sidelined, all of us. And our humanity was further separated from the others.34

When the tradition no longer provides a home, what happens? There was a moment, in the writing of this section, when coincidental connections seemed to show history as the opposite of home, as though the Gare du Nord had been dumped in the Western Desert. The Maghreb, 1942: before Islam, St Augustine had died in Hippo under siege. Charles de Foucauld (surely known to Simone Weil?) had been killed at Tamanrasset, with an arms cache in his hermit’s cell. Albert Camus had left Oran for Occupied France; he was the literary connection between Weil and Shestov, two far-from-orthodox Jews with a thirst for justice. Weil, a refugee, stopped at Casablanca en route to New York. Paul Bowles, from New York, was sitting out the war in Tangier, and described the failing French grip on Africa in the war’s aftermath. Gilson, meanwhile, was in Paris, adding to the Gifford lectures he had delivered in Aberdeen (as would MacIntyre, decades later), while several good and even great Scottish poets were fighting their way across the desert in the British Army.

That wasn’t a rhetorical question. The answer goes back to Aquinas on luck. Either there is divine providence, in which unfathomable case nothing is fortuitous, or there isn’t, in which case history is a pinball machine and we get on with the game. I started this section with the serendipity of my winter reading in response to MacIntyre’s canonical approach. My readings, my friendships, my mistakes or sins show the way. (As Porfiry said to Raskolnikov, ‘I’d almost got there when I bumped my head on a signpost and came to my senses’.) What happens in the language I happen to speak guides my song.


THERE IS A vision of justice that is expressed in art and in religion.
It depends on but is not satisfied by politics, which legislates for a tolerable state of injustice.
If parallel lines meet in infinity, beauty and truth converge in justice.
Art can provide a glimpse of it, here and now; religion holds out for more, sooner or later; philosophy mediates, the good being the enemy of the best.

Where does theology fit in?

There are two good reasons for hope in an afterlife (and several bad that don’t concern me): a place where justice will be afforded to those who were wronged in this life; and a reason for choosing a virtuous path in life. Let’s take these separately.

I am deeply reluctant to countenance the existence of an afterlife for which I have no physical evidence; however, the desire for justice is so strong, so real, that it counts in itself as evidence, rather in the way that physical hunger is evidence of food. I admit that my own sense of justice is shaped and distorted by a host of contingencies, but it is of the essence. I have nothing more to say on that point.

When it comes to positing an afterlife as a reason for choosing a virtuous path in this one, there’s fun to be had. To me, it’s a bit like alms-giving: if you do it for a reward (here or hereafter), it’s not that virtuous. Couldn’t you do something good just because that’s what you want to do? People who do bad things don’t usually work up a theory for their practice; why should people who feel they’re doing good be burdened with justifying their acts?

I’m thinking of Socrates in the Phaedo, where he takes a specific, cautionary approach to the pederastic education of boys in the Athens of his day. He says (I rely on translations, but they seem to concur) that it is better not to have sex with the boy but to draw the line at gentler signs of affection. In justification of this he comes up with an elaborate cosmological scene in which the gods enjoy pure abstraction while the virtuous among men can aspire to lesser but still great heights of bliss. The crass don’t see what’s going on and eventually get reincarnated as donkeys, slugs or whatever. (It’s quite interesting that, with women and reproduction left out of the reckoning, there is still a notion of virtue attached to sexual abstinence.)

Socrates was a firm believer in reincarnation. In the Meno he uses it to explain his odd theory that people never learn things from scratch, but remember them from previous lives (the bit where he shows that even an uneducated slave can be led to recall the basics of geometry). In the Phaedrus it sustains him in his calm confrontation with death. But is it needed?

Take a look at Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, where the boot was on the other foot. The men were, often, hopeless drunks, and many women left them out of the reckoning in important matters, preferring to bring children up alone, rather than having to cope with a drunken baby to boot. In all this, the women held down regular jobs. They ran the place, if not from the podium.

As to children learning by remembering their previous lives, a neater and more plausible explanation is that they learned from their grannies. In Brezhnev’s Russia this was fairly clear, in that the basics of religion, which was firmly repressed by the State, were passed on by grandmothers (born before the Revolution) while the mothers were out at work.  Similarly, these days, a certain nostalgia for the USSR is to be found among young Russians who learned about it from their (Soviet) grandparents.

Socrates’s faith was good in that it helped him meet death, but I would contend that, had Athenian men regarded women and slaves with anything other than contempt, they could have got by without the stage machinery of metempsychosis. It is odd that, in the dialogues I have read, the only person Socrates really looks up to is the priestess Diotima of Mantinea — but that doesn’t disable my conclusion.

So what actually happens after you die? A crass question, I know. Try this for an answer: what you actually believe when you die is what happens to you. Not what you hope or wish, but what you believe. So Socrates won’t find a supply of bashful virgins, nor Hitler, paradise. Having weighed the available evidence you might simply be extinguished. If you’ve never thought much about it, you might land up on the set of the romcom you were watching as you clocked out. If your entire life has been a preparation for a good death, you might worry about your worthiness for this or that, but in the end it’ll work out. Did Dante, as he hoped, find himself half-way up Mount Purgatory? Or was the whole poem an elaboration of the tension between the human and the divine order, an acceptance of whatever God ordains?

In Russian Orthodox tradition it has been said that, while God did create Hell, it is not certain that anyone is in it. If you hold that eternal reward or punishment for a few things done in the short course of life is inherently unjust, then justice will be done to you; it may turn out that you were wrong. If Socrates or the Buddha were largely correct, you may be back. Our cat Piuma, who just died at the age of nineteen, had far too much personality for a simple feline. Who knows? and does this matter?

It sort of does. In that Bowles novel, The Sheltering Sky, there is a harrowing account of a death, with glimpses of a dreadfully cold hereafter that is indifferent to the point of hostility. To fall into that would be hell indeed. And it is, most unfortunately, plausible enough. It is related to the nausea described by Sartre a few years earlier, a realization that existence really does not need us but probably cannot extinguish us.

In that respect, and in fear of it, eternal damnation is not a punishment but the simple consequence of a life lived to no purpose. It’s a ‘locked-in syndrome’ with no obvious term. To be avoided.


LET’S TAKE THEOLOGY and poetry from another angle.

At UNESCO in the 1980s, we were looking out the window as the national flags were taken down. When I remarked on the formality of the procedure my colleague said that the groundsmen were told to handle the flags as though they were putting a baby to bed. They were to be treated as almost sentient, almost responsible items, because the identity of their country was invested in them: respect shown to them was respect for the country. There were almost two hundred flags on display, nearly all of standard size and shape, and they generally said little or nothing obvious about their provenance, the exceptions confirming the rule: the tantric dragon of Bhutan, the cedar tree of Lebanon, and the Republic of Korea, the only flag with a cogent philosophical statement, and then the touching obsession of desert countries with the colour green. Those who saluted a flag did so because it was theirs or that of an ally, not because it was the prettiest or the most persuasive. Those who defended their flag in battle fought for their country; the country and the flag, in battle, were the same thing. The rest was hardly relevant – which didn’t stop them putting a cultural spin on what they were doing, by coopting poems and music.

At a primitive civic level a religion works like a flag. The state wants legitimation, the kirk wants protection, the faithful want the comfort of ritual and a place to meditate or pray. Run it up a pole, as the ad men used to say, and see who salutes it. Much of this can happen without semantic content, and, much of the time, may be better off without it.

Roman Catholics, until the second Vatican Council in the 1960s, and many Moslems still, recite prayers in a language they do not understand. Obviously, that does not impede the dialogue with God, who is above and beyond language.

The ethical apparatus that has structured established religion, at least since its Zoroastrian manifestation, is a matter of public order, really. For the faithful it’s enough to know that God is love and to have a place to dwell on that.

In Catholicism the congregation these days is largely female. Males officiate, but perhaps that church missed a trick in not (as in Judaism and Islam) making communal prayer a man’s job, with the women relegated to the sidelines. Christian scenes like this:


Cats and dogs in Frosolone
pad about unheard.
Thunder, like the odd stone falling
from another roof.
The perennial rain of the rosary
makes its mark on the old women.
Ruts and runnels in chalk vennels
with water that falls again to shape
fantastic caves in the dark.35

Or this, from the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown:

On every kind of merriment they frown.
But I have known a gray-eyed sober boy
Sail to the lobsters in a storm, and drown.
Over his body dripping on the stones
Those same old hags would weave into their moans
An undersong of terrible holy joy. 36

Or this, from  The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn, at the point where Finn is looking after his alcoholic friend Alan:

Finn felt the minds of the sisters in their kitchen bed, sweet in the grace of God, more sensitive than pain, their thoughts crying: Alan! Alan! But uplifted, with veiled lids, towards the region of God’s understanding and mercy, uplifted in shame not quite showing, held back into their hearts, hoping that what they shielded might not be seen. And all at once he saw Alan caught in the tendrils of their mercy, as the sheep of sacrifice was caught in the thicket. 37

Is the source and content of the liturgy relevant at all? Theologians tend to make it so, because direct dialogue of a soul with God can lead to dangerous excesses. In the worst cases, the secular authorities are brought in, as when Saint Dominic blessed the extermination of the Cathars. Also the core texts have to be interpreted and defended in every new generation, because repetitive threats and contemptible promises don’t always keep the flock in line.

Although (as remarked in the previous section) constant repetition can be deadening, it is also soothing, like lullabies from childhood, and more than that — a living, continuing link with those who have died, family going back to the founding fathers. Not that such fathers are always great exemplars in themselves: Moses was a killer on the lam and his God of the Armies was a psychopath. The only founders I would be inclined to follow would be the Christ or the Buddha.

Where does poetry come into this again?

Aquinas wasn’t able to read the Psalms as the poems of praise they were, so he read them as scripture — Scripture, that is, of a higher order.

It can be coopted crudely as an emblem — William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ turned into an ugly piece of jingoism — or it can be sanctified: we see that Aquinas wasn’t able to read the Psalms as the poems of praise they were, so he read them as scripture — Scripture, that is, of a higher order. Rather in the way, I was once told, that in Hindi there are two verbs for ‘build’: one for things constructed by men and women, the other, used with reference to ancient temples, for sacred architecture that somehow simply happened.

Aside from larceny and  mystification there is, I would maintain, poetry that enters the sacred realm and thus comes to the attention of the authorities. It will be deemed either blasphemous or suitable for freshening the liturgy. But given the dubious origin of poems – in unruly people who use verbal tricks – they will have to go through formal sanctification more procedural even than a late Muldoon poem. At the end of which it will no longer be seen as poetry. Or, rather, the uncomfortable dual perspective will have been firmly established. (An example is Aquinas’s own hymn Adoro te devote, latens deitas, which gained official recognition only in 1570, when Pius V had it included in the missal, and another four centuries later when Paul VI included it in the Roman ritual.38) What the layman sees and approves as poetry the theologian indignantly denies as such. The layman is convinced by its beauty, the religious by its truth. The Keatsian equivalence cannot be simply accepted in religion since there are beautiful things and even people who, while true, are not good. They might even, like Lucifer, be evil.

I returned to the notion of evil in secular art, to Aleksandr Blok’s

The road to heaven waits for those
Who walk the paths of ill.

But for the moment let’s stick with justification by beauty.

THEOLOGY, LIKE PHILOSOPHY in that respect, doesn’t like the contingent, the fortuitous, which guides poetry. Rhyme and rhythm are decoration, surely? If you have something to say, better say it in the plainest language possible. Like the Beatitudes, perhaps (‘perhaps’ because we don’t have the Aramaic and I couldn’t even read the Greek transcript). And once it’s been set down and approved you can set it off from ordinary utterance. The Koran has rhythm and rhyme (difficult to avoid in Arabic it seems), but it is vehemently set apart from poetry (whose classical rules it did not follow). Yet it does appeal to the beauty of its own language as evidence of its divinity. Hence the emphasis on the Arabic language and those very words in that dialect as the embodiment of God’s revelation. It is beauty and it is truth. The contingent has no part in it because every syllable was dictated (and repeated) by an angel of God. It’s a circular argument that you will either step into or steer clear of. Your choice. Either way, it functions like a flag — yours or someone else’s.

Someone who knew about it might tell me whether students of the Torah regard Hebrew as God’s own language, something exempt from the glorious curse of Babel. It would seem that cabalists, at any rate, do. Leave that aside, an area that may exist but I’m not exploring it here.

In Catholic Christianity there is a disjunction between beauty and truth; a powerful current jumps the gap between them but neither would exist without it. There is a heart-breaking beauty to the mosaics of Ravenna, to Gregorian chant, in Cistercian architecture, in certain litanies and even in some fairly recent music. But that’s not it. Rather in the way that a Japanese Zen abbot might choose the humble groundsman as his successor, beauty doesn’t always make the obvious choice. Beauty can sail on in glory while the truth is somewhere else. There is even a double bluff to it at times, in the likes of Caravaggio, prized by popes for his glorious paintings (in spite of his murderous tendencies): in the painting The Calling of Saint Matthew (there are arguments about this, but, for me, Christ has chosen not the gormless chap with the beard but the one on the left, hunched over his money), the tax collector doesn’t realise he’s been chosen and is clearly not expecting it. The sumptuously corrupt Church latched onto this golden boy and didn’t seem to see what he was showing them. Look at The Beheading of John the Baptist, in St John’s Co-Cathedral, Malta. The painting extended the grey stone space of the chapel to show a tawdry, ugly execution in a prison. It couldn’t have been more present, stark or shocking. So the Church framed the scene in so much gold that its sense was cut off from the world.

Noticing perhaps, some time later, that it had lost the place, the Papacy declared itself infallible in formal pronouncements on faith and morals: another circular religious argument that you either salute or do not. But in reality it isn’t about the men in fancy dress, as even they know. Simone Weil was surely very close to it. But even closer, I guess, are the poor souls who spent their working lives in the car plant that broke her, the poor beggars here, there and everywhere, ‘where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten’.

You can see women wait ten minutes in front of a factory in torrential rain, at a door where the bosses enter, and they wait till the bell rings; these are working women; that door is more foreign to them than that of any strange house where they would quite naturally seek shelter. These workers have no intimate or personal bond with the places and objects among which their lives are used up, and the factory makes them, in their own country, foreigners, uprooted exiles. 40

And there was always worse, in Paris in the 1930s, Celine:

After I was fired from Berlope my personal torment was that I might never get back on my feet… I’ve known some hopeless cases, hundreds of jobless people here and all over the world, men on the edge … they hadn’t made a good go of it!41

There should be a place in this argument for Simone Weil, but I’m not sure there is, she cuts across it so abruptly. She is every bit as powerful as Caravaggio, every bit as rare. She is intemperate, painfully so on her own people. On Aquinas, just about all she has to say is that he inducted Aristotle into the Christian tradition without ever condemning the Greek’s approval of the institution of slavery. So much for Aquinas. But most importantly here, she does step quickly into the sacred realm, and (in this like the Christ) there is no hint of poetic convention in her attack, her approach. She is, as Peter Porter wrote of Cassiodorus, ‘filled / With the terrifying dissonance of God’.42

That had to be said; it does not advance my argument, nor does it disable the conclusion that poetry is an embarrassment to theology, which tries and fails to control it. A poet may choose to accept such strictures by way of thematic or formal constraint, but that’s the poet’s choice, not an obligation of any kind. For this poet, the songs brought into being are, like the noises made by any animal, praise. It’s all sacred.

Peter McCarey lives in Geneva, where he ran the language service of the World Health Organization for 15 years. The struggle to manipulate or in part survive variously defective systems informs his work. McCarey is a founding member of Poésies en Mouvement (Geneva) and panjandrum of Molecular Press. His early collected poetry, Collected Contraptions, was published by Carcanet in 2011. The rest is to be found in The Syllabary. His books include Hugh MacDiarmid and the Russians (Scottish Academic Press, 1987), Find an Angel and Pick a Fight (Molecular Press, 2013) and De l’Oubli (L’Ours Blanc, 2020). In 2016, he convened and chaired a meeting of international experts on an impossible pandemic. The proceedings were published under the title Petrushka in 2017.


  1. Anthony Kenny, Aquinas on Mind (London, 1994), p.143.
  2. Alasdair MacIntyre, email to the author, 5 May 2019.
  3. Alasdair MacIntyre, email to the author, 6 December 2019.
  4. Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, edited and translated by Ralph McInerny (hereafter Selected), p. 401. I will refer to this edition lest the reader imagine that I have read Aquinas Opera omnia.
  5. Summa theologiae, 1-2, 1-5 (1270-71); (1268) Selected, p. 499. Kindle ed.
  6. Summa contra Gentiles 3; Selected, p. 266.]
  7. Herbert McCabe, On Aquinas (London, 2008), p.171.
  8. Summa theologiae, 1, 5-6 (1268) ; Selected, p. 380.
  9. Summa theologiae, 1, 54-8 (1268) Selected, p. 402.
  10. Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (London, 1990), pp. 114-5.
  11. Commentary on Sentences 1, prologue (1252-4); Selected, p. 62.
  12. On the Eternity of the World (1271); Selected, p. 714.
  13. Ibid, Selected, p. 712.
  14. Selected, pp. 258-289
  15. On peut parler sans scrupule du hasard dans la conversation journalière, mais puisque le monde est l’oeuvre de Dieu, que rien de ce qu’il contient n’est soustrait à la providence, comment penser qu’il y ait des événements radicalement fortuits?  Nihil igitur casu fit in mundo; rien n’arrive par hasard dans le monde, voilà le véritable point de vue chrétien sur l’ordre universel. L’Esprit de la philosophie médiévale (Paris, Vrin, 1983) pp. 349-50.
  16. Summa contra Gentiles 3; Selected, p. 277.
  17. Exposition of Metaphysics; Selected, pp. 738, 741.
  18. Commentary on Sentences 1, prologue (1252-4); Selected, pp. 64-5.
  19. Selected, p. 279.
  20. Email to the author, 3 May 2020.
  21. Ces éclairs de perfection, de fusion, de félicité totale, nous ne pouvons vivre qu’en courant alternatif, alors que la Création, malgré son absurdité démente et sa férocité, en offre des exemples en courant continu. Et c’est heureux: trop de bonheur viendrait à bout de notre fragile organisation; nous serions brûlés commes phalènes au feu; il ne nous est donc accordé qu’en doses parcimonieuses, à la mesure de notre coeur fragile. Nicolas Bouvier, L’échappée belle (1997).
  22. ‘…questa concezione della dignità del modus poetico non sia indice di disprezzo, ma semplicemente di una classificazione di valori.’ Umberto Eco, Il problema estetico in Tommaso d’Aquino, 2nd edition, p. 182; see also p.32 on Aquinas’s skill with prosody. [English ed.]
  23. Paul Murray OP, Logos 16, 2, 2013.
  24. In The Saga of Arturo Bandini.
  25. Life is Not a Long Quiet River: A Memoir (Edinburgh, 2019).
  26. Included in the Library of America edition.
  27. Slavin, 69.
  28. ‘Tu sai che potresti comandare alla nobiltà vassalla col titolo di duca?’ The son replies, ‘So che quando ho più idee degli altri, do agli altri queste idee, se le accettano; e questo è comandare’. Italo Calvino, Il Barone Rampante, Romanzi e Racconti, vol. 1, p.661).
  29. Parnassus, vol. 35 nos 1 & 2, pp. 184-237.
  30. Hugh MacDiarmid, A Drunk Man Looks at The Thistle (Edinburgh, 1926).
  31. Simone Weil, L’enracinement, (1943), in Œuvres (Paris, 1999) pp. 1025-1218.
  32. On surprendrait aujourd’hui beaucoup de chrétiens en leur disant que la croyance en l’immortalité de l’âme chez certains des plus anciens Pères est obscure au point d’être à peu près inexistante. C’est pourtant un fait, et il est important de le noter parce qu’il met merveilleusement en relief l’axe central de l’anthropologie chrétienne et la raison de son évolution historique. Au fond, un Christianisme sans immortalité de l’âme n’eût pas été absolument inconcevable, et la preuve en est qu’il a été conçu. As in Gilson, above; pp. 178-9.
  33. Supposons, en effet, que l’intellect divin, pris en lui-même et à part de toute détermination volontaire, sache que de deux événements possibles l’un doit arriver, il faudra ou bien que cet événement reste contingent en lui-même, auquel cas l’intellect divin pourrait se tromper, ou bien que la connaissance qu’en a l’intellect divin soit infaillible, auquel cas l’événement cesserait d’être contingent. Ainsi donc, tant que l’on s’en tient à l’ordre de l’intellect, une connaissance distincte du contingent reste impossible. Ibid, pp. 254-5.
  34. ‘C’est elle (Marie) qui manque si cruellement à nous toutes dans le protestantisme. Son absence, c’est une sorte de trou, de vide. C’est pourquoi les protestants font toujours un peu figure d’orphelins, d’enfants sans mère. Qui leur donnera la tendresse, qui les consolera? Les Grecs avaient leurs déesses. Mais nous, nous avons relégué Marie à l’écart, simple figurante dédaignée. Ah! J’envie les catholiques, à cause de Marie….Pourtant je ne me ferai pas catholique … Il faut accepter d’être ce qu’on est, ne pas renier ses origines … Mais souvent je pense à Marie, Marie qui n’a presque rien dit, don’t nous n’avons que quelques paroles. Mais nous avons ses gestes, ses larmes, sa souffrance, son étonnement. Et si nous savons mal ce qu’elle a dit, nous savons ce qui lui fut dit: “Femme, qu’y a-t-il entre toi et moi? …” Dès lors, nous fûmes toutes rejetées, mises à l’écart, ensemble. Et notre humanité s’est encore plus différenciée de l’autre.’ Alice Rivaz, La Paix des Ruches (Lausanne, 1947, reissued 1984), pp. 157-8.
  35. The present author, Collected Contraptions, p. 5.
  36. ‘The Old Women’, Voices of Our Kind (Glasgow, 1971), p. 62.
  37. The Silver Darlings (London, 1941), p. 374.
  38. Fr Edward McNamara, EWTN’s ‘Common Questions on Liturgical Norms.’
  39. Put’ otkryt naverno k raju / Vsem kto idet putjami zla’, A.A. Blok, Sobranie sochinenii  v vos’mi tomakh (Moscow-Leningrad, 1960-63), vol. 2, p. 216.
  40. ‘On peut voir des femmes attendre dix minutes devant une usine sous des torrents de pluie, en face d’une porte ouverte par où passent des chefs, tant que l’heure n’a pas sonné; ce sont des ouvrières; cette porte leur est plus étrangère que celle de n’importe quelle maison inconnue où elles entreraient tout naturellement pour de réfugier. Aucune intimité ne lie les ouvriers aux lieux et aux objets parmi lesquels leur vie s’épuise, et l’usine fait d’eux, dans leur propre pays, des étrangers, des éxilés, des déracinés.’ Simone Weil, ‘Expérience de la vie d’usine’, Œuvres (Paris, 1999), p. 203.
  41. ‘Depuis mon renvoi de chez Berlope, j’ai eu en plus, pour moi tout seul, l’angoisse de jamais me relever … j’en ai connu des misérables, et des chômeurs et des centaines, ici, dans tous les coins du monde, des hommes qu’étaient tout près de la cloche … Ils s’étaient pas bien défendus!’ Céline, Mort à Crédit ; Romans vol. 1 (Paris, 1981) p. 652.
  42. Poem, ‘The Last Hours of Cassiodorus’, TLS, 11 February 2000.

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