Hagiography, or lives of the saints, is an underrated genre, or perhaps, rather, a genre for the niche audience of those who want to improve the way they lead their own lives by emulating certain figures of the past who were (are) eminent, not (merely) for their worldly success or historical accidents, but specifically for their practice of virtue and (a more difficult trait to define, and whose relationship to their will I understand less well) their holiness. A common flaw in lives of the saints is that the accounts are terse and stylized, and, worse, pious in a sense of the word which means, among other things, inauthentic. To be fair, since hagiography is, in part, history, it would not be appropriate to invent the personal details of thought and feeling which "bring" fictional characters "to life." Despite these limitations, G.K. Chesterton manages to write a book which is vivid and engaging. He does so, of course, through his inimitable blend of paradox and pun, humor and hyperbole, eagerly romantic historical imagination and pugnacious presentism. One is never sure whether to call him erudite or not: he always professes humility (about himself; most emphatically not about the positions he takes!) and one feels that scholars in the fields he touches on-- and what doesn't he touch on! for his books dash dauntlessly from political and social history into art into philosophy, even into economics-- would not regard him as quite respectable. And yet it would take a great deal of knowledge and study to write books as sweeping as Chesterton's, and one may learn a lot from them, though of course one must always regard his enthusiasms with due skepticism.
In short, I'm grateful for Chesterton's St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dumb Ox, and I wish I could find more books like it. For an incorrigible scribbler and aspiring scholar like myself it is gratifying to discover such an intellectual saint, one for whom the pleasures of intellectual inquiry and debate turned out to be, not a temptation or a distraction, nor even an irrelevancy, but part of the essence of his sainthood. I was most impressed by the character rather than the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. I was duly inspired by certain episodes, such as: (a) when Thomas Aquinas, a high-ranking Italian nobleman, horrifies his family by joining, not the traditional monastic orders, but the friars, the new religio-social movement pioneered by St. Dominic and St. Francis, mendicant orders of men who embraced holy poverty and were supposed to lead lives of begging, and is kidnapped and imprisoned by his brothers who want to force him back, and (b) when, attending a large and magnificent banquet with St. Louis, the king of France, Thomas Aquinas suddenly pounded the table and shouted "And that will settle the Manichees!" It makes me think: how could such a life be imitated today? As far as worldly position is concerned, where is the best place for a good man to make his stand, or rather (since heroic crises typically punctuate lifelong commitment), to take up his post? And what questions in our day are of such transcendental and urgent importance that, if one's meandering mind stumbles onto an important line of argument about them, they are worthy of full attention, even in the midst of a royal banquet?