One of the more odd and striking and common aspects of my life is that it has been relatively easy to encounter the Nathanish in books and so hard to encounter the Nathanish in life. In reading books, especially good and great books, it is not hard to find characters much like myself. Indeed, as a bookish person it is perhaps entirely unsurprising that it would be easy to find people like myself in books written by people who in fundamental ways are very much like me. I have long been struck by how intriguing it is that books should provide a great deal of similarities with how I think and feel and process things but that it should be so difficult in life to find people very much like myself. This is truly a very unfortunate thing.
Be that as it may, I was prompted to think about this last night as I was sitting at dinner and starting to read a lengthy book of near 700 pages in length that calls itself a book on Basic Thomas Aquinas (review forthcoming). I would posit that there is no such thing as basic Thomas Aquinas in the sense of being easy to understand, but if one means something that is fundamental to the thinking of medieval Christendom, then I think it can be said. It may not be a good thing to find Thomas Aquinas to be a Nathanish person, but the translation I was reading was something that reminded me very much of my own body of work in several ways.
It is worth exploring this a bit. Thomas Aquinas was someone who frequently wrote in a concise manner, seeking to explore one question at a time (as I typically do), in a way that indicates the discussion being part of a larger conversation, one that has been going on for hundreds or thousands of years even at that time, in which he not only added his own thoughts but also made frequent recourse of appeals to previous authorities. On top of all this, if one opens a page at random in the book, nearly every page contains statements that appear to be the prompts for larger debates and discussions if one chooses to do so. To be fair, I do not think I would write about most of the things that I have read in Thomas Aquinas. If he does not exactly talk about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, he does talk often about speculative matters about which he had no knowledge except for the assertions of earlier writers who did not know what they were talking about and whose testimony was pretty worthless. I do not believe there is any harm in speculating, but I do believe there is harm in confusing it with genuine knowledge.
Even as someone who has not read much of Thomas Aquinas in the course of my reading, and as someone who is only slightly familiar with thinking and writing that is explicitly Thomist (although I imagine I have read more than a little that is at least implicitly Thomist), it is not too surprising that I should find a well-educated theist philosopher who examined large and fundamental questions about epistemology and scriptural and textual authority to be rather Nathanish. It would be more surprising if someone who had similar philosophical interests to my own, a similar interest in the connection between writings and authority, and strong roots in both the Western intellectual tradition as well as a high view of scripture and sincere religious devotion would not end up being similar to me in style, in approach, and in content. Indeed, by better learning writing, we often better learn ourselves, in that we find that those who are engaged in the same sorts of quests that we are often end up being the same sort of people, shaped by the tasks they have set themselves to and the journeys of the body, mind, heart, and spirit that they have undertaken. In the pages of the great books and in taking seriously the ideas and expressions of great thinkers, we find ourselves to be less alone than we would be if we were trapped inside our own head with no chance of escape.