On Talkativeness

Philosophy finds talkativeness a disease very difficult and hard to cure. For its remedy, conversation, requires hearers: but talkative people hear nobody, for they are ever prating. And the first evil this inability to keep silence produces is an inability to listen. It is a self-chosen deafness of people who, I take it, blame nature for giving us one tongue and two ears.

Plutarch, Moralia, Book VX


Of Idle Tales and Stupefying Joy


Resurrection Icon

Virgil Nemoianu claims that “‘Christian humanism’ is rooted primarily in the Gospels of Luke and John.” Nowhere is this more evident than the 24th chapter of Luke. In this remarkable chapter, Jesus’ tomb is discovered empty, Jesus appears to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus, he has a meal with his disciples, and he ascends into Heaven—all in 53 verses. Yet, in spite of these tremendously important events, dare we say, the most important events of Jesus’ life, we are given little detail. The reader may be struck by the lack of specifics concerning these events, and we can only speculate as to why Luke did not take more space to explain just what happened in these last crucial days of Jesus after the crucifixion.

That Luke does not take the space to provide more detail may be an indication of the disciples own state of mind at the time. That is, Luke presents, in a quite literary fashion, the puzzlement of the events from the point of view of the disciples. None of them had expected the resurrection and they struggled to understand just what was happening. Their confusion is evident from the very beginning. When the women find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty, “they were perplexed about this.” (Luke 24:4) When the women tell the disciples and others about this, they disbelieved the women. There is no blind credulity here that is often attributed to religious believers. “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”(Luke 24:11) So convinced were they that the women’s story was an “idle tale” that only Peter went to investigate. He finds the tomb empty as the women had described and went away “marveling” because he still did not understand what was going on. Much like Joseph seeking to leave Mary when he learned she was pregnant, the disciples displayed the kind of common sense and healthy skepticism that critics of religious believers tout as incompatible with religious belief. Yet here it is present in the most devout of Jesus’ followers.

Even when Jesus appears directly to the disciples, they still do not understand. In fact, they think he is a spirit, a vision from beyond the grave. It is this encounter, along with Jesus breaking of the bread with the two he met on the road, that reveals the deep mystery of the Incarnation. For just what kind of being are they encountering? He appears and disappears at a blink, yet he has a physical body and eats and drinks. He is their beloved Lord, back from the grave and standing before them in the flesh. “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24:38-39) At this, Luke says, they “disbelieved for joy.” (Luke 24:40) It is too much for the disciples to take, it is too good to be true, and so they doubt. Again, this is a reasonable, human response to the situation. The joy is beyond their comprehension, it simply cannot be. And so Jesus takes the time to eat with them, showing them that he is not some disembodied spirit, and to explain to them all that had happened as “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” (Luke 24:45) On their (and our) own, we are not able to understand. It takes the work of God to overcome our limitations and doubts.

The notion of Jesus’ resurrection and resurrected body is as stupefying to us as it was to the disciples. With the hope and joy in the final resurrection we are given a glimpse here of eternity, but the nature of this resurrection and resurrected body are still a mystery. Just what sort of body did Jesus have, and just what sort of body will we receive? Paul explores these notions at great length in I Corinthians 15. Resurrection means something more than mere resuscitation, a notion that was not foreign to Jewish beliefs. With resurrection we are given a new body, one at the same time continuous with the present body, and yet transformed and recreated. Heaven is not a place of disembodied life, but a life fully embodied and transformed. Such passages as these ought to go far in dispelling the notions of Gnosticism. To be human is to be embodied.

These are no “idle tales,”—they represent the full hope and joy of the Christian. The joy that is beyond both our deserving and our comprehension. Luke shows us the commonality between us and the disciples, and the reasonableness which ought to typify us. The Christian is not called to blind credulity, nor to pessimistic skepticism. For the former who lead them astray, the later would keep them from the truth. And the truth is in the promise of the resurrection, the promise of the fulfillment of human nature. There is no escapist philosophy here, but a philosophy of joy and hope grounded in truth.

Stretched Out Towards Knowing: Human Wonder and Knowledge

The wonder in a child’s eyes as they encounter the world for the first time is as exhilarating as it is unmistakable. It is the exuberance, delight, and astonishment of a young mind dazzled by creation. The dazzled young mind does not remain dazzled though, it is drawn out to know that which dazzles it. The child asks “why” incessantly, struggling to know this world in which he lives, this world which dazzles him so. This experience reveals something profound about human nature and the process of education.

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliAt the center of the child’s experience is wonder. Thomas Aquinas defined wonder as “a kind of desire for knowledge, a desire which comes to man when he sees an effect of which the cause either is unknown to him, or surpasses his knowledge or power of understanding” (Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 32, A. 8). As we see the fireworks, we might wonder as to how the pyro-technician is able to produce explosions of different colors, shapes, or sizes. When we hear a strange sound at night, we might wonder what kind of goblin is roaming our house. As we reflect on ourselves, we might wonder why we exist at all! This experience of wonder reveals an essentially human characteristic, for of all creatures, humans alone wonder. These feelings of wonder are an essentially human phenomenon. As Philip Melanchthon muses, “Who is so hard-hearted…that he does not sometimes, looking up at the sky and beholding the most beautiful stars in it, wonder at these varied alternations…and desire to know the traces…of their motions?” (Orations on Philosophy and Education, 106)

As Thomas’ definition suggests, humans can wonder, because they can know. Aristotle opens his Metaphysics with the claim that “All men by nature desire to know” (980a22). This translation hides an interesting dimension to Aristotle’s claim. For the word here translated as “desire” is the word ὀρέγω (orego), which does not simply mean “desire” but “stretch out, extend” and in this context could be rendered: “All men by nature are stretched out towards knowing.” Humans are stretched out but also must stretch themselves out to live in according with this nature. As Aristotle says, humans “must, so far as we can…strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us” (Nicomachean Ethics, 177b33-34). The mind is, as James V. Schall says, capax omnium—capable of knowing all things (On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs, 15). It is in human nature to be pulled towards and to strain towards truth, for only truth can be known. Both Plato and Aristotle cite wonder as the cause of or the beginning of all philosophy (wisdom): “This feeling of wonder shows that you are a philosopher, since wonder is the only beginning of philosophy” (Theaetetus, 155D) “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize” (Metaphysics, 982b12-13).

At this point, we are still missing an important part of wonder. The Latin word for wonder, admirare, comes into English as “admire” or “admiration.” Yet, wonder is not admiration, for admiration suggests a distanced response to something worthy of respect. Wonder, on the other hand, involves the wonderer. The wonderer is not a distance observer, but a participator with those wonders. As involved in the process, the wonderer experiences a great pleasure. This pleasure is not simply that of amusement (far from it!), but a hope that that which causes awe in us due to our ignorance can come to be known. Again, says Thomas, “wonder is a cause of pleasure in so far as it includes a hope of getting the knowledge one desires to have. … Wonder gives pleasure … in so far as it includes the desire of learning the cause, and in so far as the wonderer learns something new.” Wonder, therefore, is intimately linked with hope. For, if there is no hope that the wonderer will come to know the object of his wonder, the only result is despair. Consequently, any belief system which denies that knowledge is possible, or that truth is attainable by the human mind, must be a system of despair; and must chastise the child that wonders.

If this desire to wonder and to know is innate in human nature, why then do many people stop wondering as they grow? A full treatment of the decline in our wonder is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would like to suggest one possibility. As we grow, we sin, and as we sin, we violate our very nature. The effects of this will vary as individuals vary, but one of the effects is often the diminished desire for our very nature to develop. We lose what G.K. Chesterton calls, “the eternal appetite of infancy” (Orthodoxy, 58) The world becomes a wearisome and tiresome place, because we are wearied and tired of ourselves. We are born, as Wordsworth puts, “trailing clouds of glory … [and] Heaven lies about us in our infancy.” But as we grow up, we grow old and can no longer see Heaven around us.

The question now becomes, what is to be done? How are we to recover this eternal infancy? How are we to grow up, without growing old? The answer must partly come from education. Education of the kind that does not dull the mind into submission, but which liberates it from opinion and ignorance, and feeds it on truth, goodness, and beauty. Then, and only then, is the mind freed to continue wondering, knowing, and delighting in the process as it matures. Furthermore, as the mind matures, it’s capacity to wonder also matures and so too does the delight in knowing. In short, we become more human, more of what we are, more of what we were intended to be.

Why Study History? Part IIIb: History Is the Key to Current Affairs & Disciplines

Note: This is the fifth post in the series: “Why Study History?”

In my previous post I argued that history provides the foundations for knowledge.

Beyond the foundations of knowledge, history also functions as possibly the only way students can understand the current world in which they live. For no one lives in a vacuum. A society’s current state of affairs is the result of a long process of changes and influences. Not to know the history of a society, is not to know the society. To understand ourselves, our cultures, our political structures, our way of acting, our way of thinking, etc. depends on the history of those things. As Aristotle pointed out, “we do not know a truth without its cause” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 993b23). “Cause” here includes, but is certainly not limited to, past persons and events. Even the great champion of progressive education, John Dewey, noted that without a study of history, we cannot understand ourselves or our present condition:

But the achievements of the past provide the only means at command for understanding the present. Just as the individual has to draw in memory upon his own past to understand the conditions in which he individually finds himself, so the issues and problems of present social life are in such intimate and direct connection with the past that students cannot be prepared to understand either these problems or the best way of dealing with them without delving into their roots in the past.(John Dewey, Experience and Education)

fatherofhistory03bFor example, Herodotus seems quite conscious of the goal of using history to explain the current state of affairs in Greece and elsewhere. “The ancient feud between the Eginetans and Athenians arose out of the following circumstances…” (Herodotus, The History of Herodotus) These and numerous other such statements are found throughout Herodotus as he attempts to narrate the events which result in current political affairs. Similarly, Augustine’s City of God may be seen as an attempt to place the current decline of Rome into the cosmic history of mankind. Augustine’s defense against the charge that Christianity was responsible for the miseries of his own day, was to recount the historical processes and causes that led to Rome’s decline. That is, to understand the way things were at that time, it was necessary to understand how they arrived at those state of affairs.

Furthermore, the principle that “history enables one to understand the present” can be seen throughout the Old Testament. Again and again, the Israelites are called “to remember” what God has done in order to live correctly in the present. (Cf. Deut. 6:20-25; 7:6-19; 16:1-12; Joshua 24:1-27; I Samuel 12; Nehemiah 9; Jeremiah 2; Ezekiel 20) That is, apart from a “memory” or a “history” of God’s activities in the past, their present actions are meaningless: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand…’” (Deut. 6:20-22 ESV). In the Old Testament, moral imperatives are always connected with historical indicatives. Without first understanding God’s role and relationship to the history of Israel, His commands might be seen as arbitrary or capricious.

Beyond an understanding of culture and current states of affairs, history, as pointed about above, can enable one to better understand specific disciplines. Blaise Pascal pointed out that the scientific research of his own day had shown too much deference to historical scientists, particularly Aristotle, and that this deference had slowed scientific progress. However, unlike other philosophers of his time (like Descartes), Pascal did not advocate ignoring the ancients in conducting new fields of research. Instead, says Pascal, “Since their [the ancient scientists] perfection depends upon time and effort, it is evident that even if our effort and time had gained us less than the labors of the ancients, separated from ours, the two together nevertheless must have more effect than either alone” (Blaise Pascal, Scientific Treatises). That is, if the scientist is going to advance any field of science, he must know the history of how the current understanding of his field developed. This was precisely what Pascal himself did in developing his theories and proving the existence of vacuums. The kind of “chronological snobbery” that has become prevalent today, arguing that because such-and-such a philosopher / scientist worked prior to a certain time they may therefore be ignored, is flatly rejected by Pascal. “The ancients should be admired for the consequences they drew correctly from the little stock of principles they had, and they should be excused for those in which they lacked the advantage of experiment rather than force of reason” (Ibid.)

As Pascal argues for a history of science, so too does Kant argue for a history of philosophy. In his Preface to the second edition of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant traces the relative progress of science versus philosophy going all the way back to the earliest Greeks. The purpose of this historical narrative is to discover why science had been able to make certain advances, but philosophy had not. That is, Kant conducts an historical analysis of philosophy in order to learn the nature of, current understanding of, and the way of progress in philosophy. As Kant saw things, without such knowledge of the history of philosophy, no philosophical progress would be possible.

So we see the educative value of knowing history in order to know the current state of affairs of a society, and of advancing knowledge in various disciplines. Without such historical knowledge the student is attempting to live in a vacuum of time and space that is disconnected from the reality in which he lives.


Previous Posts in the Series:
Part I: Introduction
Part IIa: The Definition of “Education”
Part IIb: The Definition of “History”
Part IIIa: History Provides the Content of Basic Knowledge


Abolish the Ph.D.!

I came across this today from Mortimer Adler:

Another demon we must exorcise is the Ph.D. degree. The Ph.D. degree has no ancient lineage. There were no Ph.D.s in the medieval universities. They had only four degrees. One was the teaching degree, the master of arts. The master was strictly a teacher, and he taught the same arts that the students were to learn, the liberal arts. The other three degrees were professional in nature: doctor of law, doctor of medicine, and doctor of theology. (Adler, “Reconstituting the Schools”)

He then explains the roots of the Ph.D. in German universities and why they don’t really have any meaning today.

He goes on, “Today there isn’t an actual doctor of philosophy in our country. There may be a few in the departments of philosophy, but for the most part they, too, are not philosophers. We don’t refer to someone as a “doctor of philosophy”; we say, “doctor of philosophy in [X]”.” 

Adler’s main complaint is that the Ph.D. is often taken to be one of a highly specialized degree of scholarship and a teacher. Hence, universities require their professors to have Ph.D.s. But anyone who’s been a part of a doctorate program knows, it in no way prepares you to be a teacher!  And I imagine many of us have suffered in college under professors who had no business being in a classroom.

Here’s what Adler recommends instead:

We ought to restructure the whole thing. We ought to have a “Sc.D.” which would stand of doctor of science of scholarship, and use that in place of the Ph.D., for all graduate degrees other than law, medicine, and theology. The Sc.D. would not signify a teacher at all. If we want to signify someone who is prepared to teach, and since the master of arts degree no longer means that, let us resuscitate the old degree (now an honorary degree) of L.H.D., the doctor of humane letters. (Ibid.)

Oh, and by the way, I found this in my reading for a doctorate class…


Mortimer J. Adler

What Is Philosophy? A Very Short Overview

“For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.”

St. Thomas Aquinas from  by Carlo CrivelliClassically (and etymologically), Philosophy is the “love of Wisdom.”  “Love,” in this sense, is the eros or “passionate desire” for Wisdom and Truth.  Philosophy investigates and seeks to answer the perennial, fundamental questions of human existence: “what is the purpose of life,” “what does it mean to live well,” “what is truth,” “can truth be known,” “what is good and evil,” etc.  Given this breadth of inquiry, Philosophy qua philosophy is not an end in itself; instead Philosophy encompasses all disciplines / knowledge as they tend towards Wisdom and Truth.* Since all Wisdom and Truth are grounded in God, Philosophy naturally leads to Theology.  Furthermore, because all Wisdom and Truth is essentially theological, Philosophy itself is always at the service of Theology; as Theology is the Queen of the Sciences, Philosophy is the ancilla theologiae (the Handmaiden of Theology).  Philosophy serves as the ancilla theologiae in three ways:

Ratio (method / procedure) First, Philosophy equips Theology with the rules of thought / Reason by which the mind operates, the dialectic of argumentation by which the mind investigates Truth, and the analytic and synthetic processes by which the mind discovers Truth.

Auctoritas (authority) Second, Philosophy provides Theology with insights discovered by the great philosophers (both Christian and non-Christian) who arrived at the Truth with the light of Natural Reason and practices deference to their authority.

Concordia (union / harmony) Third, Philosophy coordinates its discovered Truths with Theological Doctrine and subordinates these Truths to Revelation.

*Related to this definition, philosophy is also the investigation into the presuppositions of any subject / discipline.  It asks and attempts to answer the foundational questions of all areas of study (e.g., “how ought we to proceed in the study of X?”).  Thus, philosophy incorporates the Seven Liberal Arts and the Four Sciences as it provides a “philosophy” of each of these disciplines: e.g., “the philosophy of grammar,” “the philosophy of science,” “the philosophy of arithmetic,” etc.

Misconceptions Concerning Kierkegaard

First Things has a nice article on Kierkegaard up today:

The two biggest misconceptions about Kierkegaard have to do with his attitude toward the Church, and his general disposition. Because he rebuked the Church so sternly, some people think he was trying to subvert it. On the contrary, says scholar Howard Johnson, Kierkegaard was a “loyal son of the Church,” who “like St. Thomas Aquinas,” or any other theologian until recent times, was “so living in the sacramental, ecclesiological reality” of Christianity that it would never have occurred to him to try to “topple altars.” His critique was constructive, not destructive. …

The second misconception is that Kierkegaard was a perpetual malcontent, the “gloomy Dane,” who could only protest and never find peace and solace. In fact, the moment he committed himself to Christ, unreservedly, Kierkegaard found that peace which was the source and strength of his whole life.

You can read the rest here.

The Polis or the Parent? Who Should Teach the Children?

aristotleIn a previous post I argued that Aristotle would reject modern Progressivist theories of education based on his writings from the Nicomachean Ethics. Now, I’d like to explore the issue of “who is responsible for teaching children” based on Aristotle’s arguments in the Politics.

Aristotle’s Politics argues that the formation of the city-state (or Polis) is a natural of state man which arises to fulfill the human need for community. Thusly, the state exists for the happiness of its citizens. Towards the end of Book VII of the Politics, Aristotle begins an examination of the nature and manner of educating the children of the Polis. After some general observations about education, Aristotle says that the next examination should be, “whether the care of them [the children] should be the concern of the state or of private individuals” (1337a5). It is likewise the purpose of this essay to evaluate whether the Polis or the parent should be responsible for educating children.

Not surprisingly, Aristotle argues that the education of the young should be directed by the Polis. Aristotle gives several reasons for this conclusion. First, “the neglect of education does harm to the constitution” (1337a11). In other words, if the state is going to continue, it must have good citizens, or rather it’s whole purpose is to produce good (or happy) citizens. Second, if the education of the young is left to each individual, then the parent will give the child “separate instruction of the sort which he thinks best; the training in things which are of common interest should be the same for all” (1337a25-26). That is, it will not lead to the unity of the state. (“The same for all” and “public” should be understood as only applying to free citizens and not to slaves or foreigners.) Finally, Aristotle says “neither must we suppose that anyone of the citizens belongs to himself for they all belong to the state, and are each of them a part of the state, and the care of each part is inseparable from the care of the whole” (1337a27-29). For these reasons, Aristotle concludes that education should be done by the Polis. Not only that, but also that that education should be public and uniform: “since the whole city has one end, it is manifest that education should be one and the same for all, and that it should be public, and not private” (1337a21-23).

A general observation should be made before an evaluation of Aristotle is given. First, I have used the word Polis in place of State in summarizing Aristotle’s arguments. For what Aristotle has in mind by the State is not what we mean by it today. For Aristotle, the Polis is a small, homogenous group of individual “villages” bound together to meet the greater needs of individuals. The Polis should be large enough to be self-sufficient, but small enough that people know one another, for otherwise they cannot be judges of who ought to rule (see Book VII, Ch. 4). In fact, Aristotle categorically condemns the Nation-State of today: “experience shows that a very populous city can rarely, if ever, be well governed…for law is order, and good law is good order; but a very great multitude cannot be orderly” (1326a25-32). Therefore, to say that Aristotle would approve of the public education offered today would be false. Aristotle would be opposed to the United States Department of Education due to the sheer size of what it attempts to govern. At best, Aristotle would only approve of local school boards free from any greater control by the Nation-State or even the individual States.

The question still remains whether the education of children is should fall to local school boards or to parents. Some difficulties with Aristotle’s proposal become immediately clear. Firstly, that a community has a vested interest in the education of children does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that the community should be the one to educate the children, but only that children receive an education. One can see this system in practice in the homeschool education movement. The state does not educate the child, but merely ensures that the children do receive one, whether it’s provided by them or not.

As to Aristotle’s second argument, that if education is left up to the parent, there will not be a common education that unifies the city, it also does not follow that education is therefore to be done by the state. For again, the state can ensure that basic education (like reading and writing) is provided to the student, even if it is not the one providing it.

Aristotle’s third argument is the one that is most problematic. He asserts that individuals do not belong to themselves but rather to the state and therefore the state has the duty to educate the children. For if each individual belongs to the state in the way Aristotle suggests, it is difficult to see just where the rights of the citizens and the rights of the states begin or end. No doubt, Aristotle has in mind a Polis where each citizen is like-minded with regard to ends of humanity and so will therefore agree on the education of the children. So again we may be comparing apples to oranges by comparing what Aristotle has in mind with the programs of today’s public education. For what exactly is to happen if the Polis mis-educates or under-educates the children? Is the parent simply to bow to the power of the Polis? If, on the other hand, it is the responsibility of the parent either to educate or to ensure that their children receive an education, then the rights of the parents trump the rights of the Polis.

Much more could and needs to be explored on this issue. The conclusion of this analysis shows that, indeed, the Polis does have an interest in the education of children, but that this education does not necessarily come from the Polis itself. A further argument needs to be explored, which is beyond the scope of this post, whether it is primarily the duty of the parent to educate the child. For if this is the case, it will have a dramatic effect on the nature and manner of this education in the Polis.

Everyone A Philosopher

It is — I take it — a distinguishing characteristic of philosophy that it is everybody’s business.  The man who is his own lawyer or physician, will be poorly served; but everyone both can and must be his own philosopher.  He must be, because philosophy deals with ends, not means.  It includes the question, What is good? What is right? What is valid?  Since finally the responsibility for his own life must rest squarely upon the shoulders of each, no one can delegate the business of answering such questions to another.  Concerning the means whereby the valid ends of life may be attained, we seek expert advice.  The natural sciences and the techniques to which they give rise, though they may serve some other interests also, are primarily directed to the discovery of such means.  But the question of the ultimately valuable ends which shall be served, remains at once the most personal, and the most general of all questions.

-C.S. Lewis, Mind and the World Order (1929)