How does one find the obstinacy, the calm, the strength to glow with the Beautiful and the True in the midst of a raging storm? I think about a small argument in chapter 13 of the “Summa Contra Gentiles,” the work which, when my heart slows its hammering, gives my mind peace.

I am at my desk with my new copy of the Summa Contra Gentiles. The old volumes literally broke apart in the early part of this COVID-19 caging. Their bindings gave up their ghosts. Every page I turned came loose. After trying to tape them together (and hearing my Godmother’s voice in my head telling me that there are binders in this City who can fix it), I gave in, and treated myself to a new set: the bi-lingual one. Binders or not, I did not want to lose pages, or waste my quarantine.

I love the exuberance of the Contra Gentiles, its joyful flexing of intellectual muscles, and have been reflecting for days on Chapter 13, where Aquinas lays out what in the larger Summa he will call the First Way: the argument from motion for the Prime Mover, the Primum Movens, what Aristotle called τὸ πρῶτον κινοῦν ἀκίνητον. Its sub-arguments’ careful articulations of the reasons why only simple things can be self-moved fill the soul.

As I did when I was a student, I have in these months transcribed Aquinas’s arguments: put them in propositional form. I have even used modern symbols to do so, but have also filled the pages with geometrical drawings to represent the wholes—the entia—that modern logic cannot account for. How much more the arguments mean to me now than they did to me then!

Part of the difficulty of this prolonged caging of ours and its subsequent unrest is that I can in no way predict how much I will struggle to get the simplest of things done. Everything seems so distant, so unrelated to reality. There are those in our country today who are in deep turmoil. Students are raging about things that they do not understand. They are toppling statues. They are burning flags. They are getting campus chaplains fired. The press is stoking the unrest, which cannot but also be exacerbated by people’s need for fresh air, after these months of watching the world on a tiny screen, or from behind glass windows and face masks. As I watch, I am mindful of the fact that three and a half years separated the storming of the Bastille and the beheading of Louis XVI. The right combination of inflammatory pamphleteering, ideologues on a mission, economic unrest, and lack of true and firm moral voices can have terrible consequences. Why should I finish spackling the walls of my foyer?

And yet, when I read Aquinas, the disquiet passes.

I am reminded as I sit here in the silence of my home with the hysteria surrounding me of Wanda Landowska, of Daniel Varujan, of Osip Mandelstam, of Anna Akhmatova, of Lev Razgon, of Victor Frankel, of the many many others.

I recall a childhood memory: one of my older brothers proudly pointing out the sound of the bombing in Landowska’s recording of Scarlatti. It was Paris. It was 1940. The Germans were on their ways. Landowska was Jewish. But she had recordings to make on the harpsichords she had pushed Pleyel to make for her. The magnificence of Baroque music had to be heard on what she romantically thought were the proper instruments for it. She played. The studio recorded. In K490 one can hear the artillery firing in the background. Landowska played on without missing a beat.

And Daniel Varujan wrote on. It was 1915. The first horrendous genocide of the Twentieth Century was being consummated. He had been among the first to be arrested, had been transferred to a camp with hundreds of other Armenian intellectuals. His wife was pregnant. His family in danger. His fellow prisoners, the crème of the flowering Armenian cultural Zartonk (re-birth), fretted before being removed and killed. But one would never know any of this from reading the glorious verses of the Hatsin Yerk (Song of Bread), filled as they are with hope, faith, love, and joy. They were published posthumously. When the war was over, the remnants of the Armenian nation of the west, to whose descendants politicians still today refer as “the leftovers of the sword,” hired an investigator to find them. They were in a warehouse, where the belongings of the martyrs were stored, in his jacket pocket.

Akhmatova sieged the Kremlin and wrote on, and Mandelstam, whose wife memorized his verses to preserve them. Razgon and Shalamov persisted. Ciszek kept on celebrating Mass. Frankel thought of his wife. The herded priests at Dachau prayed. They were not heroes, if by that one means that they were people who intentionally, programmatically, decided to mount on white horses bedecked in shining armor, and rage against the winds. They did no raging at all. They were simple people, stubborn people, people with a quest. They had found the pearl and held tightly onto it so that it would not be ripped from their hands by the storms.

How does one find the obstinacy, the calm, the strength to glow with the Beautiful and the True?

As I sit here, I think about a small argument in chapter 13 of the Contra Gentiles, the work which, when my heart slows its hammering, gives my mind peace.

That which is posited to be moved by itself is moved primarily—Hoc quod a seipso ponitur moveri, est primo motum.

The line is a definition of a “self-moved” mover, a “self-made” maker, a “self-changed” changer. It is part of Aquinas’s proof of the validity of scholastic adage: omne quod movetur, ab alio movetur—“everything that is put into motion is put into motion by something other than itself.”

Its key words are “to be moved” (moveri and its participle motum), “by itself” (a seipso), and “primarily”—primo. Once one grasps its key terms, the definition—and proof—flows like water down a mountain, opens like a rose blooming in the early morning.

Like many key terms, moveri and primo are difficult to translate. Moveri (and its participle motum) do not quite mean “to be moved” and “moved,” respectively. I think they are more perspicuously translated as “to be put into motion” and “put into motion”—bearing in mind that motus, in Latin, also means change: to be drawn from potentiality to actuality.

“Primarily” does not quite capture primo—Aristotle’s πρῶτον. “Primarily,” at least in its common usage, means something akin to “for the most part.” It both suggests that there are a “secondarily,” “tertiarily,” and so forth. And it implies an incompleteness that is thoroughly misleading in this context. As Aquinas indicates in the paragraph preceding this definition, that which is primo “put into motion” is so ratione sui ipsius, et non ratione suae partis: “by reason of itself, and not by reason of its parts.”

“Principally” might do as a translation of primo, if one bears in mind that in Latin principium (the root of our word) means both “beginning” and “principle” and implies a whole entity, the leader, the first, that is the originator of the motion: the princeps (from which we get our word ‘prince’).

To get back to Aquinas’s definition, it can, I believe, be more accurately rendered:

That which is posited to be put in motion by itself is put in motion principally.

To paraphrase, that which is put in motion by itself is the principle of its own motion: it is its own princeps. In the line that follows the definition, Aquinas immediately draws its consequence:

Therefore, if one of its parts is at rest [that is, if one of the parts of the thing “put into motion” or also that “puts into motion” (since the definition posits that they are one and the same thing) is at rest] it follows that the whole [of that thing “put into motion” or that “puts into motion”] is at rest.—Ergo ad quietem unius partis eius, sequitur quies totius.

Here is where the beauty of Aquinas’s definition of the “self-moved” mover, “self-made” maker, “self-changed” changer is revealed—and the reason why it is so very important to understand its terms. If something or someone is truly the principle of its own—or his own—motion, his own princeps, if you will, he cannot but be the principle of all of himself. What sort of a princeps would he be, were he not? A true princeps, a “self-made maker,” “self-moved mover,” a “self-changed changer” cannot both make all of himself and not some of himself, he cannot put all of himself into motion and just move part of himself, he cannot cause all of himself to act and not cause some part of himself to act.

For if, while one part is at rest, another of its parts were put in motion, the whole itself would not be moved principally, but its part which is put in motion while the remainder is at rest.—Si enim, quiescente una parte, alia pars eius moveretur, tunc ipsum totum non esset primo motum, sed pars eius quae movetur alia quiescente.

The conclusion here is obvious: if any part of a thing or person is “at rest” while the whole is not at rest, that thing or person cannot be a true princeps: “self-made maker,” “self-changed changer.” And this is precisely what Aquinas claims:

Nothing [including a part of a thing] that is at rest while another [including one of its parts] is at rest is put into motion by itself: for that which is at rest as a result of another thing being at rest must be put into motion as a result of the other’s motion. And hence it is not moved by itself. Hence that which was stated to be put into motion by itself is not put into motion by itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be moved by another—Nihil autem quod quiescit quiescente alio, movetur a seipso: cuius enim quies ad quietem sequitur alterius, oportet quod motus ad motum alterius sequatur; et sic non movetur a seipso. Ergo hoc quod ponebatur a seipso moveri, non movetur a seipso. Necesse est ergo omne quod movetur, ab alio moveri.

My geometrical images for this little proof are a sphere—the best phantasm, I think, of an entity—and a sector of the sphere (a spherical sector)—my image for a part of that entity. I am (or at least would want to be) a sphere: a coherent simple whole, whose yes is a yes and no is a no, whose actions are pure and whose thoughts are all clear and distinct.

I imagine that I am that sphere, and ask myself what it would be for me to be a princeps, an entity that puts itself in motion primo and ratione sui ipsius. I think it is evident that I would in such a case put all of myself into motion when I moved. I could not but do so. There could not be any part of myself (any sector of the sphere that is I) that did not act when I acted if I were that sphere and I myself caused my own actions principally and by reason of myself alone.

If this is so, then since there are parts of me that do not move when I put myself into motion (sectors of that sphere that do not move when the whole sphere is in motion), it is evident that I am not and cannot be a sphere: a simple entity, a simple being. Nor can I, consequently, be a princeps, an entity that puts itself into motion principally and by reason of itself alone.

with a divisible thing, being put into motion depends on its parts, as does its existence, so that it cannot move itself principally and of itself—moveri autem ipsius divisibilis, sicut et eius esse, dependet a partibus; et sic non potest seipsum movere primo et per se.

Why this beautiful little demonstration keeps on coming back to me as I sit here at my desk with the helicopters out my window and the insanity that surrounds me, why it gives me peace is that it points to the root of why it is sometimes a struggle for me to get the simplest of things done, why it is impossible for me to know myself clearly and distinctly, why I can suddenly become enraged or frightened without even understanding why, why things are sometimes unclear to me and as clear as day at others, why I need light. I am not my own princeps. I am not a Primum movens, a prime mover.

There is a Primum movens other than me. He is my Primum movens. He is the quiet in my inner storm, the pearl, my peace, and my King. He is the quiet in the storm that surrounds me. He is with me in all storms. Were He not, I would not be and there would be no storms.

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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay and has been altered.

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