I learned recently that it’s possible to disable images while navigating the internet. A few simple clicks in Preferences or Settings (depending on your browser) and that menagerie of clickbait can be reduced to a mere text file for one’s hyper-pragmatic use.
The aesthetic violence this does to the surfing experience seems to require a sufficient reason. For many, I suspect, it comes down to an allergy to advertisement. It is exhausting to be compassed about on every side with promotions and product placement that has a comprehensive knowledge of your cache, cookies, and history. Beelzebub may not be able to know your hidden thoughts, but Jeff Bezos’s marketing team certainly does.
The trepidation we feel about internet advertising (or any other kind of advertising, for that matter) can be clarified by considering a parallel set of circumstances. Pop music is a commercial product designed (sometimes cynically) to generate an emotional response and thus to sell. When the music plays, sometimes you submit to the induced euphoria (as with any Coldplay hit), but sometimes you resist. Why? Because it is obvious that the song is designed to manipulate. From a cursory overview of the lyrics and a summary scan of the music itself, you know that this piece was fabricated in an hour and not in the feverish transport of a virtuoso or the night vigil of a Renaissance prodigy. This is business, and it sells by tinkering with your interior life. The advertiser employs the same dread logic.
What do we think being exposed to nearly nonstop advertising does to us? Perhaps you’ve had the thought that a culture hyper-saturated by advertising has not left you unscathed. What if I myself have become an advertiser? Is such a thing possible? It starts in grade school with the magazine drive, selling superfluous subscriptions to indulgent neighbors. In college we table for organizations from which we have checked out semesters before. Later it assumes the shape of multi-level marketing schemes as friends work to sell expensive makeup, essential oils, and Tupperware. We, too, have been mobilized by an advertising culture—and this isn’t even to speak of the ordinary social and professional salesmanship that goes into currying favor and forging connections.
Besides the strain this attitude places on relationships, when all contacts become business contacts, we find ourselves robbed of the capacity to convince anyone of anything or ask anyone for anything. We have become another pop-up needing to be blocked. Ultimately, this mentality alienates us from one another as it corrodes discourse and public life. Many find it nigh impossible to have a rational argument on substantive points. Rarely do two persons appeal to each other as reasonable and to reality as intelligible. Rather, each works to manipulate the emotional responses of the other, and victory is secured by moral suasion and rhetorical stratagem. The truth of the matter is a fruit of our invention.
Or maybe it’s not—not really.
Instead, our culture is sick with this advertising mentality and desperately in need of a cure. What’s the antidote? Let’s call it a culture of witness. Rather than a marketplace of influencers, perhaps what we truly desire—what we need—is to live in the company of men and women who have actually tasted and seen and can testify. These men and women, witnesses all, direct us neither to themselves, nor to their products, but to something that exists independently of both. These witnesses would show us something more than emotional manipulation or therapeutic management; simply, and terribly, they would show us reality. If we want truth, we will need their help in directing our gaze aright.
Over and against the prevailing tendency to settle for suasion, the Christian intellectual tradition has consistently held that we have access to the truth. There is intelligibility on offer, and our minds are ordered to it. But, with so many conflicting opinions in play—so much advertisement masquerading as truth-claim—it takes discernment to determine who can help us to sift through the dross.
In the Christian tradition, this place is occupied by the wise, by Fathers, Doctors, and saints—those esteemed as orthodox, intelligent, and holy, and who have been received in the tradition accordingly. And in that pantheon, a few names resound with peculiar clarity. Over the course of the last 750 years, St. Thomas Aquinas has been singled out as one who seemed to have “inherited the intellect of all,” a recognition that earned him the reputation as the Common Doctor.
One of the mottoes that St. Thomas gave to the Dominican Order he joined is “to contemplate and to hand on to others what is contemplated.” As a contemplative master of theology, St. Thomas trained his mind on something bigger and better and more beautiful than himself, and had his heart shaped accordingly. No mere advertiser of eclectic insights or intellectual novelty, St. Thomas harmonizes the riches of the tradition and offers a luminous vision of all reality in light of God. His authenticity, clarity, and depth of insight make him a sure guide and excellent teacher.
And, St. Thomas shows himself a witness by a tell-tale sign: he himself generates witnesses. He is no guru consuming the attention of his adherents. Rather, St. Thomas begets disciples who are themselves more concerned with the truth than with aping the thought of their master. He attracts friends who are delighted to find that their teacher was blessed to discover truth often and to submit to truth always.
Admittedly, many novice Thomists perhaps carry themselves with more confidence than their formation merits. (“Well actually, St. Thomas says . . .”) But, I would submit that is not characteristic of the lot. Just because he can be marshalled somewhat irresponsibly does not mean that he himself is in the wrong. And, recent experience has convinced me all the more that he can be received organically and communicated effectively—begetting witnesses in turn.
This past year, I’ve worked for the Thomistic Institute, a research institute of the Dominican House of Studies that sponsors campus chapters at secular universities throughout the US, Canada, England, and Ireland. When I began, I was told that one of my principal responsibilities was to visit the chapter leaders at the various campuses and support them in their work. I didn’t quite know what that entailed, but I have some experience as a hype-man so I was undeterred by my relative ignorance.
What I found was awesome—a network of witnesses at some forty-five campuses. As I came quickly to discover, the students themselves are the protagonists of the work on each campus. They formulate the ideas, organize the lectures, and animate the intellectual evangelization of their universities. When they invite a speaker, they don’t do so as an “influencer.” They ask first-order questions (“What do I love?”) rather than second-order questions (“What won’t offend my classmates?”), and they reap bountiful harvests in turn. When they invite their friends, they are able to speak with that kind of conviction. They are able to testify to what they themselves have tasted and seen.
In my conversations with these students, they are not content to repeat the thoughts of St. Thomas or other figures of the Christian intellectual tradition. Rather they are genuinely interested in assimilating the insights of wise and learned Christians, translating them into a modern idiom, and placing them in conversation with contemporary disciplines. Ultimately, they are interested in what is true, and the witness of the Angelic Doctor has helped foster their gifts as they act as real dramatis personae in the intellectual evangelization of the academy. Our most recent program—Aquinas 101—is just a direct response to their desire to do that better.
It could be said of the advertiser that he attempts to produce in you a disordered desire for something you don’t need. To that end, he manipulates and roils the desires of your heart to generate the requisite response. On the flip side, it could be said of the witness that he attempts to educe from you an ordered desire for something you do need. And to that end, he shows you how the desires of his heart have been healed and elevated through an encounter with the same reality.
It is the distinctive office of the witness to gesture beyond. In this, St. Thomas performs the task to perfection. He does not aim to ensnare your gaze and hold it for the pitch, but rather points “adamantly and awesomely at someone else.” He produces not slaves of passion, but slaves of the truth. For Thomism is no product to be peddled; it is wisdom whereby to know well and to love aright, fashioning in turn a culture of witness.