Of Angels

20111105-201745.jpgSmarting from the accusation I seldom read the source, I’m wading through Aquinas at present. Corblimey he’s obsessed with some things well beyond my interest. But that’s because I’m reading him for his ethics, and he’s writing a science book as far as he’s concerned.

Summae Theologica is, I come to realise, describing Aquinas’ views on how the world, universe, animals, minds, substance and energy all work – the lot.

Not surprising then he spends considerable time on causation – what causes what, what is primary, what is secondary and what is ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, what is an ‘operation’ what is a ‘state’.

His method is famously rigorous: three or four well sourced views on a theme, his own judgement and an answer to the opening views.

I think he quite carefully integrates a humanist perspective with a religious one. At times he acknowledges tantalisingly what ‘would’ be the case if there was no God – Aristotle ‘would’ be right on human happiness for instance he says.

After Aristotle, he concurs that our ‘end’ is indeed happiness. But we achieve happiness imperfectly in our mortal lives. We achieve it most in contemplation. In contemplation of what though?

For Aquinas, of course, that would be God. But contemplation of God is, he acknowledges, tricky. Not least as He is infinite and Our reason is finite. We’re snookered from the off.

What to do? It could be worse. Animals are even further from God than we are. They lack our intellect and capacity for reason and thought and so can’t contemplate God at all.

Aquinas explicitly acknowledges that nature has fitted us and animals with desires and emotions to further our own survival and that of our species – positively Darwinian. But they are ‘beneath’ us and we are a rung down from – you guessed it – Angels.

God tops Angels of course, but each in the chain comes closer to ‘perfection’ and achieves ‘happiness’ most by ‘touching’ the one above.

I’m not sure how many farm animals would agree they are ‘perfected’ and happier ‘touching’ humans. Perhaps a well trained sheepdog. But we humans can attain greater happiness in the use of our more ‘perfect’ power, namely contemplation. And among the things we can happily contemplate are Angels.

Now this is a thought I can honestly say I have never had. Beyond the one on top of the Christmas Tree and my daughter in the school nativity, I have never spent any time contemplating Angels. Perhaps I should?

But the point I take from Aquinas and Angels is this: contemplation, seeing beauty around us and perfecting and developing our human capacities, skills and aptitudes is where Earthly happiness lies.

Csikszentmihalyi comes to mind. As I said to someone last weekend it’s all about adding ‘relevant complexity’ to our lives and personalities.

And I think this is what Aquinas is getting at too. A life of virtue, self-improvement and integration of the body, soul and mind might mean at the end of it all, the ‘bottled essence’ of us – probably in frail and wizened form – is a shimmering soul ‘touching’ that of an Angel.

Character Forming

I read an interesting article in my old favourite the New Scientist this week. I’ve been ploughing through some accumulated backnumbers, the magazine having recently been forcibly rehabilitated as a format, after the missus trod on my Kindle and bust it.

What goes around comes around, as the rustling of magazine pages and the need for more light to read newsprint disturbs her slumber at lights out. I feel a shade guilty and remember that part of the reason I bought a Kindle was to be a more considerate bedfellow – and to save my dwindling night reading vision. More carrots and a new Kindle are in order.

Back to the point. The article’s writer Samuel Barondes says ‘personality’ is best understood as a composite of: dispositional traits, troublesome patterns, character strengths and sense of identity.

I like this idea. But a trying to remember it, sat on the Tube today, mutation and evolution intervened and I came up with a subtly different variant:

1) Innate preferences
2) Experiences
3) Bad traits
4) Our internal narrative.

Similar, but not quite the same. I’ve subconsciously pulled out experiences – and therefore, implicitly, the environment. Perhaps that’s because I increasingly believe much of what we are is shaped by chance and circumstances.

But ‘bad patterns’ or traits, as a significant part of who we all are, is a discovery. When you think about it we all have them. And when it comes to bringing them to life, Theophrastus, whom the article signposts, takes some beating. Theophrastus was a pupil of Aristotle and wrote extensively on flora. He also wrote a field guide to that most variegated of fauna – the human being.

The Characters of Theophrastus – a bit like Aristotle’s ‘On Physiognomy’ – tend towards the negative in people. Perhaps both disliked extremes and preferred the ‘golden mean’ as their prescription for the ‘good’ character. For his part Barondes says every culture values self-control, kindness and a sense of one’s place in the universe.

I read Theophrastus’s thirty ‘characters’, and to my growing embarrassment recognised myself strongly in two, and a little in another one. The good news, at least based on my list, is I can forgive myself a bit.

Some of my bad patterns are innate, some the fault of my environment. But my best defence against my ‘bad traits’ is an increasingly clear narrative if who I am and what I am for. Half-way through my life, I reckon the last element of ‘character’ is the one I can do most about.

We are all basically a self-edited ‘story’ looking backwards. And, following Aristotle, we are all the sum of our actions going forward. So I conclude it’s well worth continuing to pay proper attention to both. Theophrastus is a warning to those who don’t.