Thursday, February 05, 2009

Consolations of Philosophy

“The sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Philosophy indeed has no other origin." Plato -- Theatetus
I thought I would try to blog a bit about philosophy, since it comes up a lot on this blog.

If I had only heard of philosophy through the one class I took in university, I would think that it was a sterile and esoteric subject. I think I vaguely remember the professor discussing whether a car window was open or closed, lecturing to blase students who hadn't even discerned why they were even at the university in the first place.

Thankfully, it is difficult to read much in the Catholic treasury of faith, history and literature without coming upon the word Philosophy in a very different guise.

I think I probably longed for philosophy before I even knew what it was. I remember studying the scriptures long before I converted to Catholicism. I was talking to some Jehovah Witnesses not because I was interested in their form of religion, but because I wanted to "give reasons for the faith that was in me." (at that time, I was an Evangelical Protestant Christian). One Witness tenet is that the Holy Spirit is not a Person but simply a sort of force emanating from the Father. I did an intensive study of the Holy Spirit through scripture and fell in love with Him -- the Holy Ghost, that is -- a strange way of saying it, but I can't really say it differently. It was like vowing allegiance. To something I couldn't see, Who seemed more real and substantial than most of the things that you can bump into or step on.

Later, after I started homeschooling, I was pondering Proverbs. A lot of the homeschooling books I read were very big on Proverbs, mostly the child-training maxims. But when I read the book, I was pulled in by Wisdom -- Sophia:

Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets....

Get wisdom, get understanding: forget it not; neither decline from the words of my mouth.

Forsake her not, and she shall preserve thee: love her, and she shall keep thee.

Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding.
I didn't care as much about "the rod bringing reproof" as I did about wisdom calling, with no one to hear her beautiful message and come to her shelter. I hear her voice now! It's like the curtain stirring and drawing aside for a moment that CS Lewis described in Surprised by Joy. But there's more to it than just hearing, I realized. I'd have to follow her, shelter under her wing, be willing to die rather than forsake her (because what IS life without wisdom, as Socrates pointed out in Phaedo when his followers asked him to desert philosophy in order to save his life). It's not JUST a matter of setting off; there is a road map, and sometimes you toil and don't seem to get anywhere, and sometimes you fall into a morass. But it is worth it.

Later still, as I first came upon the term "philosophy" in a Christian sense, in Catholic readings, I realized that the term was a declaration of allegiance, of love and alliance, to Wisdom. "Sophia" derives from the word for wisdom, and "Philo" evokes "love" or friendship. I pondered the story of Solomon choosing wisdom above all else. His story is a good one, which shows that choosing wisdom is a constant re-conversion, because you can easily fall away, as he did when he let his wives bring false gods into the land and let his sons associate with peers instead of mentors.

St Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:
Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.

Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing.
No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified.
The merchant, having found the pearl of great price, sells everything he has in order to buy the field it is in.

Wisdom has chosen a weak servant in me. I have to be aware of that constantly and shore up that weakness. I can be inclined to set up my camp chair in the field and forget the pearl. Things like running and digging make me tired. But again, it is worth it.

Sorry about all the autobiographical details. The point here is that Philosophy, etymologically, is not a subject in the strict sense; it is a sort of relationship. The Church calls philosophy the "ancilla fidei" -- the handmaiden of religion. It is a search, not an arrival; a quest, not a product; again, an ongoing devotion which is never "done" or achieved. Socrates said he was only wise in knowing he was not wise; that's probably the best approach, loving wisdom because it's NOT yourself. If one was wise already, why would one have to search? One would only have to look inside. CS Lewis reminds us that this is a trap.... the moment we forget the object of joy and start trying to focus on the joy itself, it goes away.

I am not saying, "It is better to travel than to arrive". Not in the least! Once again, it is "love" and love doesn't get done with. It is ongoing. Love is essentially in relation to something else, as is knowledge.

Socrates said that Wisdom begins in Wonder. Mysteries deepen and expand the more you ponder them, not expand in numerical proliferation like a mutating cell or dust bunnies under the bed, but start with simple things and grow into something one couldn't have imagined to start with, like a seed grows into a mighty tree.

Philosophy can stretch the boundaries of your mind, like theology. It is immeasurably capacious. Yet it is simple. Everyone can access the treasury. It is not strictly dependent upon intellectual acuity, and in fact one's rational intellect can prove a stumbling block, because that is limited and tends to set limits even where they don't exist. Wisdom can be won "connaturally" through virtuous living and love for the good, according to Aquinas. This is why you meet simple, ordinary folk who are very wise, and some very smart people who have little to no wisdom, who have limited their understanding to what they can grasp by strictly rational means.

Philosophy is everybody's business, as Mortimer Adler writes. He quotes Aristotle:

"The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but every one says something true about the nature of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed."
Jonathan Dolhenty terms the philosophical endeavour as:

"an analysis of the human condition as seen through the eyes of an authentic philosophical realism fundamentally grounded on the judgments of common sense, critically examined and expanded."
The part I want to focus on particularly is the "common sense" part of it. I think common sense (insofar as it is TRUE common sense) is similar to what Aquinas calls "right judgment". Philosophy goes beyond common sense, just as faith goes beyond natural reason. But like Faith and Reason, Philosophy and common sense are compatible, or ought to be.

The sky is the limit; but the atmosphere, the air of philosophy, is right around you, in the questions your toddler asks; in the mystery of a tiny seed growing into a tremendous sequoia; in the musings of your silent moments, when you ponder what it all means, why it is one way and not another, the hidden and not-obvious things that are passed over when life is too hurried and harried. Philosophy is in the reasons, articulated or not, that you choose one type of life over another. Philosophy is a relationship, as I think every child probably knows; at least, I did, when I was small and could feel a sort of Breath around almost everything I did.

The reason I'm writing this out is because I often write about philosophy, yet am not necessarily someone who always "judges rightly" or understands all the upper expansions of the philosophical discipline. The word "amateur" is not dissimilar in etymology to the "philo" in philosophy since they both imply interesting oneself with something out of love. I think a lover of wisdom can talk about the thing he (or she) loves without claiming to be anything more than a devoted amateur. People who love make mistakes sometimes, but the mistakes don't invalidate the whole enterprise, so long as they don't distract and lead us right off the path. And because they love, they have a corrective in their mistakes.

One more thing -- I doubt if I have very many readers to whom the word "philosophy" has negative connotations. But of course, one hears about the "vain philosophy, traditions of men" condemned by St Paul in Colossians, and I have read some homeschool writings that take the Apostle to mean that philosophy is vain by definition. Quite obviously, there are vain philosophies. Generally I think one of the biggest temptations in philosophy as a science is a kind of gnosticism or elite-ism, an "inner circle" of those in the know (CS Lewis speaks of the psychology of this temptation). Another is the "use" of philosophy to gain power. Philosophy nowadays isn't thought of as a road to power, but remember that what we call simple Science now was traditionally called Natural Philosophy -- it was the philosophy that had to do with understanding of the natural world. If you look at it this way, you can probably see that Philosophy of the Material Kind is sometimes used by its "high priests" as an occasion for pride and accumulation of power. This is a misuse, of course.

Closer to my everyday life, there can be a "vain-ness" in philosophy from the excess of curiosity, a vice that Thomas Aquinas mentioned which means seeking out knowledge out of season and proper occasion. This would be something like sloth (at least in my life) -- a replacement of actual One Needful Thing with a bunch of mental philosophy-related trivia. Maybe this is another application of Non Multa Sed Multum ;-). St John Chrysostom says:

"the evil rises from idleness and a vain philosophy, that one should be occupied about words only. For it is a great injury to be uttering a superfluity of words, when one ought to be teaching, or praying, or giving thanks."
Perhaps that's a good place to close. ... or start ;-).


Wendy in VA said...

Lots of food for thought here, Willa. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! I love this --

"The point here is that Philosophy, etymologically, is not a subject in the strict sense; it is a sort of relationship. The Church calls philosophy the "ancilla fidei" -- the handmaiden of religion. It is a search, not an arrival; a quest, not a product; again, an ongoing devotion which is never "done" or achieved."