The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 22, 2017

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Last Things: Aquinas’s Oysters
James V. Schall, S.J. - 10/21/09
Oyster
I.

The other day, a former student of mine, who lives in Tennessee, told me that he planned to walk the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. That is one of the great enterprises that I never got around to doing in my youth, though I do recall marching up around Mount Rainier during army basic training. Young men can trek and march because they have, as natural to their being, the power of “locomotion.” Not all beings have this marvelous power.

In the meantime, with a class, I was reading Aquinas’s commentaries on Aristotle, especially his Physics. In it, Aquinas frequently gives, as an example of animals which do not have locomotion, none other than oysters. Oysters do not walk about the sands or rocks at the bottom of the sea looking for their lunch. They are carried about by water motion or what they need is brought to them by the same waves. But they are definitely alive. They are not plants drawing their needs from roots.

The order of beings passes from inert matter, which, like boulders or gold, can only move if you throw them. It goes next to living plants that are rooted to the soil, then to animals, both those with locomotion and those, like the poor oyster, without. Angels and birds seem to flit about on wings. The birds at least also have legs on which they are, if you ever saw a duck waddle, more or less proficient. I will not try to fit in the ostrich here, but the strength of its legs is parallel to the weakness of its wings. Some animals are powered with four legs; some insects go up to six with spiders and, with the centipede, to a proverbial hundred.

Though some of us human beings can “walk” on our hands, still the most efficient way is on foot, or better, on two feet. It begins to look like the fewer legs the better until we get to the one-legged man. One leg alone is better than none, but it will not get anyone very far without a substitute second leg. How seldom do we think of the wonder it is that we have this locomotion? Aquinas’s oysters and the waves made me think of it.

As we look at the array of living beings in nature, we see that mobility over the surface of this planet is quite an advantage. Fish, no doubt, have a form of locomotion. They can cover a good deal of sea territory by just flipping their fins and tails. Some water swimmers like turtles and crocodiles can get out on the land, though they are not fish. Some birds dive down into the surf and stay under for long enough to find their supper. Too, we observe critters like worms and snakes that get about without legs. Plants depend on wind, birds, or insects for various purposes from reproduction to nourishment.

Aquinas

The locomotion of all animals that possess legs as part of their nature has some purpose, certainly food and reproduction. We human beings are two-legged. We share many of these features of locomotion with animals, which are mostly four-footed. We are faster than some, slower than many. But our locomotion, like theirs, seems directed to which we are ordered—that is, to know, to act, and to make. We have many verbs that describe the various ways to indicate human locomotion. We can list a few: to walk, to run, to climb, to dance, to kick, to skip, to jog, to sprint, to carry, to ramble, to rush, to saunter. Each of these verbs implies locomotion for some different purpose.

Or we can look at our locomotion in another way. We have things like bicycles, wheelbarrows, automobiles, airplanes, rocket ships, balloons, trucks, golf carts, tractors, and scooters. These are humanly made contraptions designed to aid the purpose of walking or locomotion, which is to get from here to there. An escalator is but a device to get us up or down without walking. Crutches help us move when one or other of our limbs is impaired.

But before the contraptions that move by foot, gas, wind, electrical, or nuclear power, we had as aides to getting about the four-footed beasts that were, as they say, domesticated: the horse, the donkey, the camel, the zebra, the elephant, the ox, and even the dog in cold climates. Monkeys, lions, jaguars, and tigers never made it. The domesticated animals were once necessities for our travel and work. They still are in some places and may be so again. . . . Today such animals are kept mostly for our pleasure, for riding, racing, and, yes, for our food.

The muscles and bones in our feet, legs, and hips make it possible that we are beings with locomotion. If we tear our hamstring muscle or break a bone in our ankle, we become immobilized until it heals. We first do not have such muscles and bones, then have to figure out what to do with them. Rather, because we are the kind of beings we are, the rational animals, our bones and muscles look the way they do in order that we might do what we are ordained to do, which is not just walking about. We walk about in order that we might live, sense, feel, and know.

In addition, there is such a thing as staying in shape so that we can use our bodily powers well. Gymnastics and training are ancient things. We have seen the statue of the discus thrower, who must twist, turn, and step to hurl this object across a field. We are not surprised that it was first a weapon. Few people in modern cities have to go very far to find a place to “work out,” as we put it. Most people recognize that the human body needs attention in order for it to do many things well, including walking and running.

Locomotion means that we can get about. We can take our very selves here and there. If we do not have a good view of the lake or hillside from this spot, we can walk over to another angle a couple of dozen feet away. If we do not have a book we want to consult, we can get up and walk across the room to our bookshelves where we are sure we put it.

Resting is part of walking. We need to rest to walk on. We need to sleep that we might continue the next day. I once read of a couple that tried to walk on each of the streets of the cities they were visiting. Most human beings during their lives cover much distance on foot. The only way to “see” a city is, yes, on foot. It is one’s locomotive powers that allow him to walk and see, walk in order to see.

We are not like the philosopher Zeno, who proved that we could not go anywhere because to do so we would first have to traverse half the distance, then the next half, until finally we could go nowhere at all. The famous phrase “solvitur ambulando” bluntly overturns this annoying philosophic dilemma of Zeno. One does so by simply walking from here to there. No big intellectual problem. Our feet thus are also philosophic.

II.

Perhaps we can call this operation “thinking with our feet,” unlikely contemplative appendages, to be sure. We have heard the expression, from Marxist days, of “voting with our feet.” Roughly, it meant that if you could not stand the regime you are living in, you simply left it, if you could. I sometimes think that the whole troubled immigration issue is an aspect of this “voting with one’s feet.”

Such feet-voting is one of the greatest political freedoms. Often it is one of the most dangerous. That is why un-free regimes make every effort to prevent voting with one’s feet. They put up walls and mines and guns. And passport control, visas, and citizenship laws are designed not merely for safety but often to protect one’s land from peoples displaced by the tyrants of various sorts from flooding one’s shores.

Man is the rational animal. He is the being who laughs. He is the political animal who concocts constitutions and passes laws. He is the being who walks about. He carries with him all of what he is wherever his two feet might take him. Aristotle said that man is the being with a mind and hands. We must add feet. With his hands, the primary tool of the universe, he can fashion what he conceives. But without his feet, he cannot get there to work with his hands.

In his book The Hungry Soul, Leon Kass describes the reason why the human body is structured the way it is—upright, with ears and eyes located in the head, with two arms, two feet, one nose, one heart. Man looks straight ahead, not down. He smells the odors. He hears the sounds. He touches, but only if he is close enough. His five external senses are brought together by a common sense that tells him of the various aspects and accidents of what he encounters. He sees; he smells; he hears; he tastes; and he touches.

But none of these powers tell him what it is he smells, tastes, touches, hears, and sees. They are servants to his knowing and affirming of what is. His power of locomotion gives man first the area immediate around him. Aristotle said that to be happy one does not need to be the ruler of land and sea. But one needs to be able to walk about his own home, his own area. Locomotion frees him. The tree does not move even if it sways in the wind and its pollination requires the wind. The animals rush about. But the rational animal goes where he decides to go. He leans how to get there, even if he needs more than his legs to get there, a horse, a boat, a Mercedes, a Boeing. Without legs, feet, and arms, he cannot avail himself of any of these modes of transportation.

And, of course, man also needs his mind to tell him that this is a ship and not a horse. He wants to know whether this train goes to Philadelphia before he climbs on board. The most basic things of personal hygiene, sleeping, eating, and working are possible only if he can move about freely in a small area, if he can get from here to there with his feet. With our minds, we can see the truth in the object that we see and affirm. With our wills we decide to go to that which we see is good, to that which is not ourselves. But without feet, we could never get to those things that our minds know, to things we would like to love and possess.

In perhaps the greatest essay on walking in our literature, William Hazlitt’s “On Going a Journey,” we read:

I grant there is one subject on which it is pleasant to talk on a journey, and that is, what one shall have for supper. . . . The open air improves this sort of conversation or friendly altercation, by setting a keener edge on appetite. Every mile of the road heightens the flavour of the viands we expect at the end of it. How fine it is to enter some old town, walled and turreted, just at approach of nightfall, or to come to some straggling village, with the lights streaming through surrounding gloom; and then, after inquiring for the best entertainment that the place affords, to “take one’s ease at one’s inn.”

It is the walking, as Hazlitt says, that hungers us, makes us appreciate the day, the food we anticipate, yes, the ease. Our bodies begin to ache, reminding us of our mortality at moments when we know we are more than mere mortals.

We are the beings who can move because we have brains and feet. Our feet enable us to get closer to things. All that is interests us. “Let me get closer,” we say, “so that I can better see it.” Our whole corporal being is ordered to our knowing. And our knowing is first stimulated, provoked by what is not ourselves. We want to know the truth of things. And once we know that what is not ourselves actually is, we seek it out.

Hilaire Belloc

Belloc was probably the greatest of those who wrote of many walks, in North Africa, in Patmos, in Spain, in the Alps, in Sussex, in Paris, and on the path to Rome. In his essay called “The Long March,” of his time in the French army, Belloc wrote: “So we went by, and when we had left them some few hundred yards we again heard faintly behind us the beginning of a new song, the tune of which was known among us as ‘The Washerwoman.’ It was a good marching song. But shortly after we heard no more, for first the noise of the horse-hoofs extinguished the singing, and later distance swallowed it up altogether.” The marching, the singing, the hearing—with locomotion, distance takes over. We no longer hear; we no longer see.

We have feet to bring us near and to take us away. We have locomotion. It is a power we did not give to ourselves. It was there when we first learned to crawl. We crawled to grasp what we wanted. What we want is to know. We want the world that is not ourselves to become ourselves, while remaining itself.

Once we know what is, we can move toward it. We can bring ourselves there for a better look. We are the race of people who look at each other in the face—face to face, as it says in Scripture. But what is it to know one another? Once we are there, before one of our kind, we find that who we would know must also reveal himself to us. We seek to know the other in the specificity of the being given to it. We are not abstractions, we find. We have names—John, Suzie, Socrates, Elizabeth, Harriet, and George. No one is without a name.

We are named beings. We walk about. We move locally, from here to there. Our hands touch. Our hands configure. Our feet move us to where we want or need to be. Yet they do not rule us. They obey us. We rule our members with a “despotic” rule, Aristotle said. That is, unlike our pains and feelings, they have no independent power of resistance unless they are themselves wounded or impaired.

Our power of locomotion exists at our command, and we do not want to go anyplace unless we have a purpose. It is the purpose of our going that lies at the basis of all locomotion. What gets us from here to there is not our legs but our whys and our desires and our loves. This is the way it should be. Our powers are given to us that we might know. But we know in order that what is comes to activate our minds. Once we know, we can act and make, we can surround ourselves with what reflects our souls.

In the end, our feet cannot take us to where we really want to be. For our end is not a where but a who. It begins, to be sure, with the “who” that we ourselves are. But the purpose of our locomotion is not to bring us to ourselves. We are already there. It is rather to remind us that we are not sufficient unto ourselves. Our very knowing urges us out to what is not ourselves. This is why we have feet, I suspect. And yet we too know those who also walk. “Singing in the Rain” is not a bad metaphor, in fact. It implies that our walking together is at least in part of why we are.

The famous Twenty-third Psalm reads: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” We do walk through the valley of the shadow of death. How else would we go? We should not walk in or into evil, no doubt. But we will have to face it in our walks in this world.

Yet we need not fear evil—the rod, the staff, the comfort. Aristotle, I think, was right to make a point of reminding us that we are beings which can move locally. After all, this locality, those places to which we can walk, are where each of us will meet in our lives everything that will ultimately decide what we are, things we can walk to and walk away from. Unlike Aquinas’s oysters, we human beings have locomotion. It is no accident, I think, that the philosophers and the theologians tell us that in our final home we are to see the highest things “face to face.” I have no doubt that locomotion remains in the highest things because there are found faces and we seek them.

To learn more, visit the ISI short course on Western Civilization.

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