By Dr Andrew Kania
The French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, once wrote about an unfortunate incident that occurred to a young noble woman – she broke wind in public.
Whereas I am sure incidences of public flatulence, have affected most human beings, through out the ages – this young lady was so embarrassed, she committed suicide.
Montaigne’s point in recalling this anecdote, was that we shouldn’t be so myopic on the human condition.
What should have been laughed off quickly as a mere accident, or brief loss of bodily control, became the trigger of fatal shame.
In his discussion of the virtue of ‘Moderation’ in Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas provides a number of refreshing insights and reminders for we ‘moderns’.
Moderation, according to Aquinas is the search for balance in the way we live.
If we are too strict in how we approach life and living, we run the risk of becoming scrupulous, in religion this is best seen in superstition, what Aquinas terms as ‘religious overdrive’.
Conversely, if we are lax in our behaviour, we can easily dupe ourselves, that nothing is sinful.
Balance and common sense are required if one is to live a truly holy life, or as Aristotle would write – the good life.
Being a good follower of Aristotle, Aquinas always stresses the ‘golden mean’.
Aquinas is the patron Saint of common sense; he is sublime enough to be ethereal, but simultaneously human enough to remain earthed.
So, as an example, let us unpack a passage from Aquinas, in which he deals with ‘Moderation’. Aquinas writes: “Our outward gestures betray our inward disposition: ‘the apparel on our bodies, the smile on our face, the way we walk, all show what we are.” Insofar as such gestures are directed towards others they must be controlled by friendliness and affability; insofar as they express our inward dispositions they must be controlled by truthfulness.” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, ST, III, q 168, a1).
Look carefully at the importance that Aquinas places on the inner man and woman, and how what is churning away on the inside determines what the world sees on the outside.
The clothing we wear, (our ability to afford the garments we most desire, aside), indicate so much about us.
As I write this piece, I am wearing a non-iron white business shirt, and non-iron grey trousers.
Why? First and foremost, my workplace requires that I wear a certain type of clothing, and I, making the best of the situation, don’t wish to iron. Second, what does this say about me?
Not only that I am happy to conform on things that to me matter little, but that I don’t wish to spend a minute more than I need too, in order to iron.
I would rather spend more money, to spend less time at the ironing board.
I also wear white shirts, because this cuts back on doing too many coloured washes.
All this could mean that I am inherently lazy, but it may also mean that my time priorities lie elsewhere.
I do know people who iron their bed-linen, as well as those who iron their underwear; I also know others who pay others to do this for them, something I could not do. In any event, what Aquinas wishes to stress is that our outward gestures should not find us out as liars.
The American philosopher, Henry David Thoreau would put it simply, that we should never take up a new occupation, that required from us that we change our wardrobe – for by doing so we run the risk of becoming on the outside, something quite distinct from our inner being.
Most of us I feel can relate to what Thoreau is saying. I can recall one parent at an expensive school telling me that they bought a new car, as they felt inadequate driving to their child’s school, and seeing all the mothers arriving in expensive four wheel drives.
Aquinas and Thoreau would concur, that a new car may be in order if the car one is driving is on its last gasp, but to change vehicles in order to look like the others, is similar to dying one’s hair a darker shade in the hope of restoring the health of one’s youth.
Yet people do both, go into debt in order to look wealthy, and dye their hair to appear youthful.
I also remember a student telling me that the reason that their mother had chosen to send them to the school that I was then teaching at, was because she wanted to place the school’s name on her curriculum vitae, and that this would enhance her employability; that is, my children are educated at ‘X College’.
Appearances, is what Aquinas condemns. Life is too short to just ‘appear’ – one must strive to be genuine, to be real, to be both inwardly and outwardly truthful.
There are constraints of course on the degree to which we can be open and frank with our neighbour, for civility sometimes requires of us, at least a modicum of restraint; but we cannot succeed in altering our outward self without running the risk of losing who we are on the inside, and vice versa.
Aquinas continues his passage on moderation: “Just as we relieve bodily tiredness by bodily rest, so we relieve tiredness of soul by pleasure, which is rest to the soul. We take a break from serious intent and take refuge in words and deeds which are playful and humorous, giving us the pleasure we seek … What we actually do in play has no other goal; but the accompanying pleasure serves the soul’s recreation and rest.” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, ST, III, q 168, a2).
So here is one of history’s most serious thinkers and contemplatives telling us that going to parties and telling jokes, is in fact a God-given necessity, for good living.
How can we deal with so much of the seriousness of life, if we cannot take time to see the lighter side of living? Again, Thomas teaches us about balance.
As with all things Thomistic, there is the counter side of the teaching. Aquinas continues: “Play can go over the top if it becomes obscene or harmful to our fellowmen, or if the circumstances are wrong.” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, ST, III, q 168, a2).
Thomas condemns as did St Ambrose jocularity with regard sacred matters. But Thomas Aquinas is certainly no kill-joy, for he clearly emphasises that: “it is also unreasonable to be a burden to others, never agreeable but always a wet blanket, never saying anything nonsensical and reacting grumpily when others do. Aristotle calls such people rough boors.” (Saint Thomas Aquinas, ST, III, q 168, a4). We have all met those people who are suffocated by their desire to appear ‘intellectual’.
To some extent I can understand them. When I first received my Doctoral degree, I felt a very heavy weight around my neck; a weight similar to Coleridge’s albatross, I felt as if I always had to appear intelligent, and as Aquinas said, that I could never say anything nonsensical. In fact, others also expected this ‘perfection’ from me.
When I arrived for a casual, impromptu visit to my new workplace, dressed comfortably in tee-shirt, shorts and thongs, the secretary looked at me in disbelief, asking me whether I really was ‘Dr Kania’. Perhaps I disappointed them, but I recalled Aquinas soon enough.
There is time and place and moderation in all things.
It wasn’t a work-day, I was on holidays, and just wished to take a small visit.
There are many people who wish to ‘appear’ intelligent, but few who wish to ‘be’ intelligent, and the latter are those who, as Aquinas teaches, are willing to risk saying a few silly things if the time and place allow.
As Desiderius Erasmus once wrote about his friend, St Thomas More, he could not determine whether More was a wise foolish man, or whether he was a foolish wise man; he only knew he loved him dearly.
Life is too short, so we must read the best books first, as Thoreau taught us – similarly life is too short to be anything other than oneself, and Aquinas gives us ample enough instruction and encouragement to live reality, rather than a dream (or for that matter, a nightmare), in order to appear, like a shadow in moonlight.