Sunday, January 29, 2012

`Dedicate the Attention So to One Small Thing'

Frank Wilson reminds us that Saturday was the 787th birthday of St. Thomas Aquinas and commemorates the date with a sentence he attributes to the philosopher:

“All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly.”
The passage about the “unius muscae,” drawn from Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum, humbles our pretensions to understanding by summoning the humblest of creatures. The fly is small, ubiquitous and scorned. Only entomologists lavish attention on it. A man could devote a lifetime not to Drosophila as a biological abstraction but to a fly as an individual, and still know ignorance. We learn enough to swat one when it lights on the dinner plate but not enough to envy the compound eyes or marvel at the elegance of its architecture, as the poet-priest Thomas Traherne (1636-1674) did in The Kingdom of God:
 “The Creation of Insects affords us a Clear Mirror of Almighty Power, and Infinite Wisdom with a Prospect likewise of Transcendent Goodness. Had but one of those Curious and High Stomached flies, been Created, whose Burnisht, and Resplendent Bodies are like Orient Gold, or Polisht Steel; whose Wings Are So Strong, and Whose Head so Crowned with an Imperial Tuff, which we often see Enthroned upon a Leaf, having a pavement of living Emrauld beneath its feet, their contemplating all the World…the Infinit Workmanship about his Body the Marvellous Consistence of his Lims, the most neat and Exquisit Distinction of his Joynts, the Subtile and Imperceptible Ducture of his Nerves, and Endowments of his Tongue, and Ears, and Eyes, and Nostrils; the stupendious union of his Soul and Body, the Exact and Curious Symmetry of all his Parts, the feeling of his feet and the swiftness of his Wings, the Vivacity of his quick and active Power...”
Traherne could have rhapsodized the anatomy of any creature, but the smallest suited his purposes. The earliest practical microscopes appeared during his life. For the first time, men could observe in detail the multiplicity of worlds previously invisible, “the most neat and Exquisit Distinction of his Joynts.” The first microscopic description of living tissue appeared in 1644 -- in Giambattista Odierna's L'occhio della mosca (The Fly's Eye).
In her 1930 poem “Lines to a Kitten” (Poems 1924-1940, 1950), Janet Lewis memorably describes her cat as a “Morsel of suavity.” It sits on her knee and intently watches a fly from six feet away:

“Only the great
And you, can dedicate
The attention so to one small thing.”

1 comment:

Peter Watson said...

Thomas Aquinas might been born on January 28th but so might he have been on any of the other 364 days of the year. What is certain is that when his relics were translated to the Couvent des Jacobins in Toulouse on January 28th, 1369, the flies no longer had much interest in him.