Saturday, March 12, 2011

Everyone wants a bit of philosophy

"Pft, philosophy." said a seminarian.
"Hey!" I screamed "the Pope said in Fides et Ratio that people who don't like philosophy should be taken out and shot!"
"That's...really what the Pope said..."
"It's the gist of it."

Actually, what he (our former Pope) said in §61 was "I cannot fail to note with surprise and displeasure that this lack of interest in the study of philosophy is shared by not a few theologians."

And it's true. Many seminarians - planning on being theologians - are made to go through a couple of years of philosophy before they enter into the contemplation of the highest things...well, the highest Being. Philosophy, to many seminarians, is like a period of purgatory verging on hell. They have a lamentable intellectual acedia when it comes to philosophy. Ontology? Epistemology? Metaphysics? Give me the Trinity! The Blessed Virgin Mary! The Eucharist!

Oh, I can't blame them terribly much. Philosophy has such a reputation. Couple its history of Descartes, Kant, Hume, etc., with its difficult vocabulary, obscurity, and those contemporary philosophers who still try to defend consequentialism, and you can quickly see that philosophy appears rather un-chic. Dr. Kevorkian - now he definitely had a philosophy. Why study something that's so...troublesome?

Recall Boethius' vision of lady philosophy:
While I was silently thinking over these things in myself
and noting mournful complaints by a pen's service
there stood over head visions for me,
a woman of very majestic appearance,
with eyes shining and sharp beyond common human health,
from vivid color and of inexhaustible vigor,
yet so mature in age as almost to be believed of our time,
the height of doubtful determination.

For at one time she held herself to common human measure,
while at another time in height she actually
seemed to strike the heaven of the highest summit;
which when her head was raised higher even penetrated heaven
and was frustrating the observation of the humans looking.

Her clothes with the finest threads were by delicate skill
from the imperishable material of perfection,
which, as I have since learned from her coming out,
she wove herself with her own hands;
just as it usually does smoky pictures,
a kind of fog of neglected antiquity covered their form.

On the lowest border of these a Greek Pi was embroidered,
while on the highest a Theta could be read,
and between both letters could be seen
in the manner of stairs a kind of marked grade,
by which the ascent should be
from the lower to the higher element.

However the hands of some violent ones had torn this dress
and had taken away whatever particulars each could.
At any rate in her right hand were books,
while in the left she was carrying a scepter.


"Now then do you think it is the first time
wisdom is among bad morals challenged by dangers?
Did we not among the old too
before the great age of our Plato
often contend in disputes with the thoughtlessness of folly
and by the same superstition his teacher Socrates
earned the victory of an unjust death by my assistance?

"The inheritance of which since successively
the crowd of Epicureans and Stoics and others
each having plundered to the best of their ability
they tried to go on
and me crying out and resisting
they carried off for part of the plunder,
a dress they cut up which I had woven with my own hands
and with rags dragged from it went away
believing I had completely yielded to them.
Since among them were seen some traces of our dress,
the imprudent having supposed them to be familiar with me
some of them were undone by the common multitude's error.
You can take bits and pieces of philosophy or look at philosophy from one privileged aspect or another, and get a very odd idea about what it is as a whole. But when you understand that what philosophers actually seek - truth and wisdom- is another way of saying they're seeking God according to unaided human reason. Human reason is a powerful, powerful thing. We've developed tools, ways of thinking, that are of immense help when it comes to theology. We've used our human reason to articulate mysteries of the faith and to defend that faith against human errors. Without philosophy, our understanding of truths of the faith would be...less.

Likewise, theology opens up whole new vistas to human reason. Faith is the horizon to which reason leads. Reason can't step over that threshold, so to speak - but God can invite us in/come to us as we are and as we need Him with our human understanding and capacities.

Faith is reasonable. You don't need to be super-reason-man to believe - there are any number of enviously pious saints who had only a rudimentary education. But to dismiss philosophy as a whole because you can't see that it has value and provides the rational underpinnings of many theological things like...the trinity and just Not Right. Not everyone is satisfied with a simple statement. We want that statement to cohere with what we've observed of the human world and nature - with experience.
Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth - in a word, to know himself - so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves. (Fides et ratio, intro)
So, you see, seminarians and theologians, you really do need to stop dissing philosophy.


Crimson Rambler said...

Deirdre, this is lovely! Thank you! I am very glad to have found your blog, and I wish you well in your time in Rome!

Deirdre said...

Thanks, Crimson Rambler! I'm glad you enjoy the blog.