The most well-known story of St. Thomas’s life is that he stopped writing a few months before he died, saying that “all that I have written was like straw compared to what I have seen”. The experience is difficult to judge for several reasons: the reference to “straw” commands most of the attention, but it’s not clear exactly what this means; but also- and more simply- we don’t know what he saw. It’s hard to understand something being “straw” in comparison to X without knowing what X is.
We do, however, know the modes of the things he is comparing, and this is significant. “What is written” is a certain mode of knowledge; “what is seen” is another. What is the nature of each of these modes, and what might they tell us about why the things in the mode of writing were “straw”?
Writing sets the role of making in knowledge in bold relief. Words are human artifacts, as are the letters one creates to record them, and the author himself must make the order among the words. All this making is to communicate the primordial making of the human agent intellect, which makes a concept in conjunction with the object as an exterior principle. By way of contrast, angels don’t need to make the word (or species) by which they know, since the word is simply innate to them (and thus it can’t be called a concept); and God need not make the word he knows since he simply is that word.
All this making of that which is known is opposed to pure intuition, which is most of all manifest to us in sight. The sensible object requires no cognitive act to make it sensible. This absence of making in knowledge is called intuition, and in the measure that our understanding is less the product of making it is more intuitive. Thus, the higher the intellect, the more intuitive it is, and the less it is characterized by the need to make that by which it sees. All this making of our intellect, therefore, is really just a shadow of intellectual non-making, that is, of the pure intuition of higher intellects and disembodied souls. It is this pure intuition that most deserves the name “see”; and taken in this sense, human beings see only in a very roundabout and shadowy way. What we long for is the effortless intuition of the in corporeal or disembodied intellects, which can simply see science as opposed to having to make it after a very long initiation process. This making process is most of all manifest in”writing”; and in this sense we all long to throw aside our writing and simply see. St. Thomas’s desire to stop writing, in other words, is natural and common to all of us. St. Thomas, however, had that desire fulfilled in this life, while the rest of us have to wait.
Monday, April 26, 2010
James Chastek, An interpretation of “all I have written is straw compared to what I have seen”