Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Philosophy 101


I like to think I’m a Thomist who just hasn’t read Thomas yet. (Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church.) Every time I read about Thomas Aquinas’ views on theology, philosophy, and logic, it just seems so reasonable and beautiful. My cursory understanding of substance theory and the unmoved mover tell me that there is some good stuff there. I wanted to start on Summa Theologica over Christmas break. But it’s really long. I’m talking even-the-author-didn’t-finish-it long. And dense. I feel like a need a bit better backing on Western philosophy before attempting it again. 

It’s difficult to make sense of the arguments of theologians like Augustine and Aquinas without understanding the arguments of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. I’ve never had much philosophical training, and I’m starting to see how detrimental its absence in education is.
When people refer to proof these days, they mostly mean falsifiable scientific evidence that is a result of the empirical method. Post-enlightenment education has tried to conform everything to the empirical method. This has caused areas that are beyond scientific measurement to be regarded as inferior. Philosophy, ethics, and metaphysics are areas worthy of study that have their own methods of proof and evidence. Truth is not limited to scientific testing. If rhetoric were still held in as high regard in education as it once did, maybe political debates would have more sustenance than just two men comparing their parties’ statistical studies with one another. Science is certainly useful in studying the physical world, in understanding how our bodies work, in developing technology and medicine, etc. But science doesn’t teach honor, or liberty, or love. Those fields deserve to be studied within proper frameworks just as much as scientific fields. 

I fear that some people don’t see the value in studying anything outside of scientific methodology and that they are missing out on the depth and richness of humanity’s study of the world. Education did not begin with the Enlightenment. There have always been scholars, for thousands of years in every civilization.

I’m in grad school, but I’m only beginning to really look into the claims of Greek philosophy, despite the fact that I’ve been raised in a society rooted in that understanding of the world. I’m starting to see the foundations of my assumptions and values. And then upon that foundation a cathedral can be built.

However, it is important for me to not get overwhelmed in my studies. I’m a student by nature, I think, and I value education highly. So it is easy for me to make the error that knowledge will increase my faithfulness. As Augustine discovered, knowledge does not equal virtue. Even after the seeking and understanding, there is still a call to action. It is my response, my actions, my virtue, that matter more than my understanding. That’s sort of a disheartening message for a student who would find it simpler to seek redemption through knowledge. But it is also liberating in knowing that I don’t need to understand it all. I don’t need to accumulate and synthesize all of Western knowledge to make sense of God. My pursuits can be knowledge for the sake of knowledge, a journey made out of love.

Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder. -Thomas Aquinas

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